Talking to Your Children About Death


A woman crying.The anniversary of September 11th is approaching and in our house, it is a very significant day in which we honor the loss of a loved one – my brother-in-law and the uncle my children never met. My daughter has known about her uncle from a very early age as we often visit his plaque at the beautiful memorial in Westport at Sherwood Island. My son is still a little too young to understand anything about our visits, but he has now joined in on leaving a stone or flower on the plaque.

Deciding when and how to talk to my oldest about her uncle wasn’t an easy decision.  I chose to be honest from the beginning rather than hiding the information and waiting until she and her baby brother are older. Whether it be a loved one that your child sees everyday or someone far away who passes away, explaining death to a young child can be a difficult discussion. Unfortunately, death is an unpredictable occurrence and can happen tragically without us being prepared to face it. Knowing how to approach and support your children will help in how you handle sharing this information with them. My dear sister who lost her husband when my oldest nephew was one year old and she was pregnant with her youngest son has years of experience in how to talk to children about death throughout different ages. In talking with her, she offered the following advice.

  • Only answer the questions the children are asking. It is not necessary to share every detail especially if your child is not asking about it.  Certain information should only be shared when a child is developmentally ready. For example, my daughter knows that her uncle died on a very sad day for America when many people lost their lives. This information was enough for her and I did not dive into details about the terrorist attack or other information that isn’t appropriate for a 5-year-old to visualize. With that being said, it also might backfire if you lie to your children in the interest of protecting them and then they find out later that you lied. Share only what you need to and build on it as they get older.
  • Don’t be afraid to cry and show emotions. By modeling appropriate grieving, you are showing your children it is okay to be sad. Allow time and space for all members of the family to grieve.
  • Limit outside exposure to the event – whether it be images or conversations. Events such as 9-11 or the tragedy in Sandy Hook are still broadcast on the news or on the internet and are not presented in a way that is meant for little eyes and ears. Try to limit their exposure to these events. Also be aware of how you talk about a loss with other people on the phone or in the presence of your children.
  • Honor the person’s life. Let the person’s legacy live on in your house. Keep a picture up, share funny stories, and create a ritual in which you celebrate them each year. A friend of mine who lost her niece sends up balloons with her young children in honor of their cousin’s birthday. This helps the children feel like they can talk about this person with you and other members of the family.
  • Open up communication lines with school and other caregivers. If certain events or situations might trigger emotions in your child, it is helpful to share that with the people who interact with them each day.
  • Seek help from literature or outside resources. The Dougy Center for Grieving Children & Families puts out some wonderful books that deal with losing a loved one. Some other great titles are: The Next Place by Warren Hanson, Snowflakes Fall by Patricia MacLachlan, The Fall of Freddie the Leaf by Leo Buscaglia, and Heaven is for Real for Kids by Todd Burpo. The Den for Grieving Kids in Greenwich, CT is also a great local resource that can offer support.

Death isn’t easy for all ages, but it doesn’t have to be a conversation that you avoid with your children. Any other resources or advice that you’d like to share in talking to children about the loss of a loved one?

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Shannon has lived in Fairfield County, CT for most of her life and currently lives in Monroe. She has a daughter L (September, 2008) and a son B (May, 2012). Shannon balances being a wife and mom with working 186 days out of the year as a special education teacher. Thank goodness for vacations, summer break, and snow days! You can be sure that she fills those days with as many amazing activities and outings that she can think of to make up for the time that she is at work. In a distant life, way before babies, Shannon was an aspiring actress and musician. You can sometimes still find her leading sing-a-longs with her guitar at the kids’ playgroups or at her daughter’s school.


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