Explaining death to a child is not easy. Some methods to better address this sensitive topic.
Death is rarely an easy topic to approach with a child. However, it is important to talk about it since it is part of life. How should it be approached?
If your child is grieving, you may also want to read:
What does a child understand of death?
Usually around the age of 3 or 4, they have questions about death. The child is trying to understand the world. They ask questions based on what they see and experience (e.g, “Why is the bird on the lawn not moving anymore?” or “Why did our cat die?”). Before age 5, children have a limited understanding of death.
Even if they know that a dead person’s heart does not beat, and that they cannot hear or speak, young children have difficulty understanding that death is permanent. They believe that death is temporary and that the deceased will come back. Nor do they grasp that everyone will die one day. They think only the elderly can die.
Between ages 5 to 7, as their thinking process develops, children better understand that anyone can die and that it lasts forever. By the age of 9, they understand that death is universal, irreversible, permanent, and inseparable from the cycle of life.
How do I explain death to a child?
It is a good idea to talk about death before a death occurs in your social circle, because you can talk about it while less emotional. You do not have to wait for your child to ask you questions before bringing it up.
When talking about death with your child, be clear and use simple words.
One simple way to approach the subject with your child is to start with the cycle of life in nature. For example, when they are 2 to 3 years old, tell them that buds start developing in the spring, leaves grow in the summer, then they fade, die, and fall off in the fall. You can give other examples that will not cause them to worry (e.g., insects, flowers, birds, fish) to show that every living being has a life cycle. Explain that the same applies for people.
You can also tell them that sometimes living beings become seriously ill or suffer so much that they cannot stay alive. However, it is important to emphasize that often people and animals can recover from their disease and live to very old age.
To help your toddler understand the permanence of death, simply explain to them that when a person dies, it lasts forever and they will not be returning. Reassure them that they can think about the good times they had with the deceased and that it will help them feel good.
When talking about death to your child, approach the subject with tact and sensitivity. Be as open and candid as possible and let your child lead the conversation. Encourage them to express themselves and ask questions. Simply answer as well as you can. It is best to admit that you do not know everything and that some things are difficult to understand, even for adults.
To learn how to explain to your child the loss of a baby during pregnancy, see Perinatal mourning: how to support the parents (in French).
For more information on how to approach suicide, see our fact sheet Mourning in children (after age 5) (in French).
Words to avoid when talking about death
Don’t shelter your child from reality. Avoid using expressions like “sleeping,” “leaving,” “passing,” or “living in the sky” to explain death. If you tell your child that Grandpa has “gone to sleep,” your toddler may become afraid of going to sleep, fearing they too might die. The same applies if you say that Grandma “left” for a long trip or is “living in the sky.” Your child will be waiting for them to return, will become anxious when a loved one goes on a trip, or will hope to see their grandmother in the sky while on an airplane trip.
Similarly, if illness is the cause of death, explain it to your child using simple words: “Grandma had cancer. It is a very serious disease. Sometimes people recover, but not always.” Don’t just tell them their grandmother died because she was very sick, because they could think she had a common cold. They might also fear dying if they get sick, and be afraid that you will die if you get sick. Additionally, reassure them that death is not contagious.
How to answer a child’s questions about death
Here are some ideas to provide answers when your toddler has questions about death.
Why do people die?
“Generally, we die because we get old. Over time, the body gets worn out and can no longer function. This is the cycle of life: we are born, we grow up, become an adult, then grow older and older, and eventually we die. Sometimes you die before getting old because you have a disease that cannot be cured or because you are in a serious accident.”
Do we know when we are going to die?
“No, no one knows when they will die. Generally, you die when you are very old. It can happen before you’re old, if you have a very serious illness or are in an accident.”
What happens when you die?
“Our heart stops beating and our body stops working. There is no more life left in our body. This means that we cannot breathe anymore, our blood does not circulate anymore, and our brain doesn’t work anymore. We don’t feel anything anymore.”
Where do we go when we die?
“We put the body in a coffin. Generally, family and friends gather to say goodbye to the body, and after that it is buried. In the ground, the body gradually disappears. The body can also be burned and the ashes kept in a special container called an urn. After that, the body of the dead person is no longer there, but we can still remember them, for example by looking at photos.” You can also share your religious beliefs by explaining that not everyone has the same beliefs.
Are you going to die?
“Yes, I will die one day, everybody dies, it’s part of life. I hope this happens a long time from now. I will surely be very old. And you too, you will be old. For the moment, I am here in good shape and health.”
Things to keep in mind
Before age 5, it is still difficult for a child to understand death.
To talk about death to your child, you can start by describing the cycle of life in nature.
It is best to avoid hiding reality and to use simple words that the child can understand.
Scientific review: Josée Jacques, grief psychologist
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: October 2019
Useful links and resources
Note: Hyperlinks to other sites are not updated on a continuous basis. Thus, some links may not work. In such case, use the search tools to find specific information.
DEUIL-JEUNESSE. Ensemble, redonnons l’espoir. Pour eux, pour nous.www.deuil-jeunesse.com
DOLTO, Françoise. Parler de la mort. Paris, Éditions Mercure de France, 1998, 62 pp.
FÉDÉRATION DES COOPÉRATIVES FUNÉRAIRES DU QUÉBEC. Comment parler de la mort aux enfants lors d’un décès.www.fcfq.coop
FÉDÉRATION DES COOPÉRATIVES FUNÉRAIRES DU QUÉBEC. Protégez-Vous.ca. “Chercher de l’aide en période de deuil : trouver le bon support dans la tourmente.” 2019. www.protegez-vous.ca
GRENIER, Louise. L’absence de la mère : retrouver le lien perdu avec soi. Montreal, Les Éditions Québec-Livres, 2011, 288 pp.
HUISMAN-PERRIN, Emmanuelle. La mort expliquée à ma fille. Paris, Éditions de France, 2002, 64 pp.
JACQUES, Josée. Un baume pour le coeur. Québec, Corporation des thanatologues du Québec, 2005, 43 pp. domainefuneraire.com
LEEUWENBURGH, Erika and Ellen GOLDRING. Aidez votre enfant à vivre un deuil. Saint-Constant, Broquet, 2009, 127 pp.
MASSON, Josée. Accompagner un jeune en deuil. Montreal, Les Éditions Trécarré, 2019, 392 pp.
OPPENHEIM, Daniel. Parents : comment parler de la mort avec votre enfant? Bruxelles, De Boeck, 2007, 168 pp.
VAINEAU, Anne-Laure. “Comment parler de la mort avec les enfants?” Psychologies, 2012. www.psychologies.com
AUBINAIS, Marie. Les questions des tout-petits sur la mort. Montrouge, Bayard Jeunesse, 2010, 140 pp.
COBB, Rebecca. Au revoir maman. Namur, Mijade, 2016, 24 pp.
HUARD, Alexandra and Astrid DUMONTET. La vie, la mort. Toulouse, Éditions Milan, 2014, 38 pp.
JACQUES, Josée and Ninon PELLETIER. Ma vie sans toi. Montreal, Éditions Petit Homme, 2019, 64 pp. (activity album to manage grief)
KAPLOW, Julie. Samantha a perdu son papa. Une histoire sur… le deuil. Saint-Lambert, Éditions Enfants Quebec, 2009, 32 pp.
PION, Lynne. Est-ce que tout le monde meurt? Quebec, CARD – Éditions Le Dauphin Blanc, 2015, 100 pp.
- POG et LILI LA BALEINE. Mamie est partie. Paris, Gautier-Languereau, 2017, 32 pp.
SCHMITT, Claire-Lyse. Quand Émile est mort... Colmar, Jérôme Do Bentzinger éditeur, 2018, 32 pp.