Talking to Children and Teens About Death

We all need guidance not only processing our own grief when we lose someone we love, but also in attending to the needs of our children and grandchildren.  Death can be painful, emotional, and confusing.  Adding to our own grief the challenge of helping our children process their own experience of loss can seem overwhelming. 

Some people believe that children should be shielded from the concept of death. 

The death of a relative or friend is often talked about in hushed tones; conversations about it stop when children enter a room, sometimes children aren’t allowed to go to funerals, or even told that loved ones are ill until they are dying or dead.  If the adults find it scary, what hope does a child have about understanding death?  But when your five-year-old asks you, “Mommy, why did Grandma die?” What should you say? 

talking to children about death

When a little person asks such a big question, you might be tempted to soften the truth.  However, telling them that “Grandma went to sleep” or “we lost Grandma” will only backfire.  David Fassler, MD., clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, suggests that saying these things “may only confuse your child or even make him afraid to go to sleep at night.”  Instead, say something like “Grandma died because she was very old and sick, and we won’t see her again. But the love we had for her will stay with us forever.”  This wisdom about not using euphemisms is important.  Developmentally, young children through early adolescence live in a very concrete reality; they often want to know the literal details of what happens when someone dies.  As adults, we imagine those details to be scary or too painful when in reality, the knowledge of those details is often more comforting.  What kids imagine is often much worse than the reality of what is. 

According to Rabbi Dan Levin from Temple Beth El in Boca Raton, Florida, we can also explain to children that there is a part of us inside that you can’t see and that you can’t touch that really makes us who we are.  “We call it our spirit or soul,” says Rabbi Levin.  “It’s the part of us that gives us ideas and feelings and opinions, that gives us the ability to care and to love.  That part doesn’t die when the body does.”  When we love people, and they love us, we get to take a piece of that spirit or soul, and we keep it alive inside us.  It stays alive in our memories and in our love.  We use the lessons the person we love taught us, and the wisdom they shared in teaching us how to live our lives.

Unlike some younger children, teenagers understand that death is a fact – it is real, final, and irreversible.

But, knowing how to cope with the feelings of loss can be a different matter. Some try to be strong and independent, handling it on their own. Some reach out to others for comfort and support.

How do you help a teen dealing with grief?

Teens often look to their family for cues as to how to handle a death. Some relatives try to put up a brave front for the sake of the children, hiding their true feelings. Teens often learn to bury feelings as well. They may try to meet your expectations, but feel misunderstood, alienated, or angry. Don’t be afraid of silence if your teen is not ready or able to talk. Provide comfort and care by just being there.  According to Karyn Rosenberg, LCSW (psychotherapist), “How a teenager reacts to grief depends on several things such as the relationship with their loved one, how that person died and what their support system is like.  There are important things to look for to know if a teenager needs extra help.  Pay attention if there are any drastic changes in eating and sleeping, significant academic changes, reckless behavior, and greater isolation especially regarding family and friends.  It may be time to explore seeking a professional grief counselor so check in with them often.”

The best way to talk about death with children and teens is easily, factually, and calmly – not every day, but often.  Here are some tips:

  • Be calm and factual answering your children’s questions.  Listen to the question, answer the question, and don’t answer what they haven’t asked.  Don’t tell children half- truths; they will make up the missing facts and those can be more damaging than the actual truths.
  • When children ask spiritual questions, it is also a useful idea to say, “I don’t know. What do you think?”  This can spark a really meaningful conversation.
  • Young children grieve differently than adults.  They can be upset about Grandpa in one moment and play with Legos the next.  Conversations may take place over several days, weeks or months as they get more curious. 
  • Explain that it’s okay to cry, but that it’s also okay not to cry.  Grief is a journey: every family member may be on the same train, but everyone is looking out of a different window, with a different view.  Don’t put a time limit on your child’s bereavement – or your own.  According to Rabbi Dan Levin of Temple Beth El, “Healthy spiritual living is giving yourself the permission to feel what you feel when you feel it, and not to try too hard to control it.”
  • Conversation starters:
  • “I’m sorry your Grandma/Papa died.”
  • “Tell me about what you remember most about him/her.”
  • “What was his or her favorite thing that you and he or she did together?”
  • “What do you miss the most?  What is the hardest time of day for you?”
  • “I cannot know how you feel, but I remember how I felt when my _____ died.”
  • “Whenever you want to talk about it, I’m here.”
  • “If you don’t want to talk we can still spend time together.”

Don’t be afraid to get help if you or your children are struggling.  If you are not coping, it’s harder to give the child the emotional support he or she needs.  You can reach out to your child’s school, physician, or Rabbi, as well as a mental health therapist trained in bereavement.  Recognize that a new normal will have to occur over time. 

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