When a loved one dies, it can be difficult for anyone to accept. Children are no different. Knowing what to say to a child when a parent dies can be challenging. You may need to approach breaking the news of a parent's death with an extra dose of care and compassion. Since children of different ages process death differently, their level of maturity and understanding plays a role in how they take in the news.
Even if it appears that a child knows and understands that their parent has died, there are certain things that you should look out for. Sometimes children have a way of masking how they're feeling. The tips below will help you gauge how the news has affected them and how they're dealing with their loss. You'll also learn how to console someone even when it appears that they're okay as you learn to process your own grief.
Tip: Helping a child through losing a parent is one of many complicated tasks you might be facing. For help understanding what comes next, check out our post-loss checklist.
1. Assess Their Understanding
How you deliver the news of the death of a parent to a child will depend on their age, developmental and maturity levels. Some children are wise beyond their years, while others will find it difficult to understand when you’re breaking bad news to them.
You can assess a child’s level of understanding by first asking questions about what they already know. It may be that they understand more than what you think they do.
The questions below are examples for you to consider when asking a child how much they understand about death.
- “Your mother has been in a terrible accident. Do you understand what’s happened?”
- “Your dad has been in a coma for several weeks. Do you understand what happens now?”
- “When mommy had an accident and she didn’t wake up, do you know why she didn’t wake up? Can you tell me about it?”
- “Daddy has been very sick for a while. He probably won’t be getting better. Do you know what happens when someone is very sick and then they die?”
2. Explain What Death Means
When explaining what death means to a child, start with the basics using clear and direct language. You may want to explain the spiritual or philosophical meaning of death in ways that keep in line with whatever your spiritual or religious beliefs are.
Keep things simple
Keep things simple and easy to understand so that you don’t confuse them. Consider explaining death in small chunks so that the information sinks as clearly as possible. Children are easily overwhelmed when too much information is given to them that they may suffer from information overload.
A young child can have a very different concept of the meaning of death than an older child or teenager.
Give a clear understanding
Begin with a clear understanding that death is permanent. When you use euphemisms (like "passed away" instead of "died") or other words to substitute for the meaning of death, a child might become confused.
For example, instead of saying this, “Your dad was in a coma and has gone to sleep forever,” try saying this, “Your dad was in a coma for a long time, and today he died. He won’t be coming back.”
As much as it may hurt you to break the news to a child, be clear that their parent won’t be coming back. When you use indirect language, a child might mistakenly think that their parent will be returning.
The terms passed away, gone to heaven, resting forever, all may leave a child thinking that there’s hope that their parent will return or one day wake up. It may also have the unintended effect of causing them to fear falling asleep.
3. Choose Comforting Words
When you’re deciding how to talk to kids about death in a way that’ll make sense to them, remember to choose comforting words. It may be difficult for you to choose the right words, especially if you’re trying to cope with your own pain and suffering.
If you find it difficult to break the news to your child, try going out for a walk before having this difficult conversation. Taking a step back to process the news before breaking it to them will likely lead to a better outcome. Your demeanor and emotional state of being will have an effect on how the child takes the news. It’s important for you to gather your thoughts and have control over your emotions before talking to a child about death.
Here are some things you may consider saying to offer some comfort during this difficult time:
- "Your mom has had an accident and has died from her injuries. She won’t be coming back home from the hospital like we expected. I love you. I’ll be here for you to take care of you, is that okay?”
- "Your dad was in a coma and has died this morning. He won’t be coming home from the hospital after all. He loved you very much, and I know you’ll miss him. I love you, and I’ll be here for you to take care of you, is that okay?”
4. Allow Them to Process
Children take in and process information differently than adults. Beginning at a young age, children may start to experience feelings of guilt and remorse. Some may think that they’re somehow responsible for their parent’s death. Children use an internal process called “magical thinking” in which they invent scenarios in their heads to try and find a reason for why things happened.
They believe that their thoughts, words, and wishes can will things to happen. This can be very confusing and detrimental to a child who was mad at their parent immediately before their parent died.
For example, a young child ordered to stay indoors instead of going out to play with friends might be angry at his mom. He might utter the familiar words, “I hate you. I wish you were dead.” And, then, mom has an unrelated household accident in which she dies. The child may think that their mom died because they willed it so
In a different example, magical thinking might create an illusion that the parent will one day come home. This happens when death is explained in a way that creates confusion and gives hope that even though their parent’s died, they may still come home one day.
Another example is saying that “mom was in an accident and has gone to sleep,” may give the hope that she’ll soon wake up and come home.
So, as difficult as it may be to tell a child that their parent has died and won’t be coming back, it’s best to be direct and allow them the time to process the information.
5. Have them Ask Questions
When a child first experiences death, they’ll likely have a lot of questions that will vary depending on their age and understanding of it. If they’re very young, they may not yet have the capacity to understand the more complicated emotional aspects of grief and loss. They may be curious and more concerned as to what happens to the body when you die, rather than the concept of pain and suffering.
This reaction is normal and is to be expected when a child has not fully grasped the concept of what it means to die. You’ll likely have to answer some difficult questions that you weren’t prepared to answer. Consider obtaining a few children’s books about death for you to read together.
6. Explain What’s Next
When talking to children about death, it’s always a good idea to explain to them what comes next. They may not understand the concept of having a funeral and burial, or be familiar with what to expect at one. Consider giving them an overview of what it’ll be like to attend the viewing, seeing their parent in a casket, or what will happen at the interment or cremation.
Prepare them for seeing mourners and explain that there will be people there who loved their parent and will be sad and crying because they’ve died.
7. Give Them Support
When a child loses a parent, it’s normal for them to feel sad, angry, and abandoned. They may not understand that it wasn’t their parent’s choice to leave them when they died. Consider giving them extra love and support to make them feel safe and secure.
Sometimes a child sees the death of a parent as abandonment or punishment for doing something wrong. It’s likely that they’ll develop a fear of losing the surviving parent as well. This is a good time to remind them that although the one parent has died, they still have another one that will take care of them, and the love and support of the rest of the family just in case.
Talking to a Child About Death
Talking about death is a conversation that is best to have with a child before the need arises. It’s a complicated and sensitive topic of discussion to have when you’re trying to cope with your grief and sorrow after suffering the loss of a loved one.
If you find yourself needing to tackle the conversation now, take a deep breath, and look at it from the perspective of a child when choosing the right words to say.