Talking With Young Children About Death

Babies as young as 3 months experience sadness and fear.

Posted May 08, 2020

Alena Ozerova/Shutterstock
Source: Alena Ozerova/Shutterstock

Young children are easily confused by death and need plain and truthful explanations when someone dies. This is true whether the person they know dies suddenly, of an unexpected accident or illness (cancer, COVID-19), or of old age. Parents and other caregiving adults should use clear, honest language to explain what happened and answer children’s questions.

  • State the facts clearly. When parents are direct, children understand better. They can use language like, “Grammy got very sick in her lungs and heart. She was having trouble breathing. The doctors did their best to help her get well, but she died,” or, “Aunt Maria died. She contracted a virus called COVID-19 (or was in a car accident, etc.), and her body got worn out/injured from that even though she was young.” Use clear language such as, “When someone dies, it means they cannot talk or play anymore. We can’t see them or hug them again. Dying means their body stopped working.”
  • Go slowly and answer children’s questions. Parents should know that some children will ask questions, and some will not. Go at the child’s speed. If too much information is given at once, they may get more worried or confused. Some children’s questions come in spurts over several days or weeks as they try to make sense of what happened.

Here are some common toddler questions about death and some sample answers:

  • Where is Grammy now? Toddlers can be confused or frightened by vague language like, “Grammy went to a better place,” or “Aunt Maria passed away.” A young child may believe that the person is literally in another place or be confused by the word “passed.” Sometimes death is described as “going home” or “eternal sleep.” Toddlers may start to fear normal activities, like going home after an outing or falling asleep. Instead, parents can offer a simple, age-appropriate explanation that reflects their personal beliefs.
  • Will you die? Recognize this fear, but then offer reassurance. Caregivers might say, “I can see why you are worried about that, but I am strong and healthy. I will be here to take care of you for a very long time.” If someone young or very close with the child dies suddenly, it may take longer to work through the fear and anxiety. Be patient. It’s OK for parents to admit that it’s hard to understand why bad things happen.
  • Will I die? Get the virus? Have a car accident? Children can be reminded of all they do to stay healthy and safe. Parents might say, “We are washing our hands, wearing masks in public, and staying home a lot right now to avoid coronavirus. We eat right, sleep right, and go to the doctor to help us stay healthy and live for a long time.” Or, “We wear seatbelts in the car and follow the rules of the road to avoid accidents as much as we can.”
  • Does everyone die? Even though it’s hard, parents do best by telling the truth and saying, “Eventually, everyone dies. Most people die when they are very old like Grammy.” Or, “Sometimes terrible things happen, and it’s very sad and scary when people die suddenly. It’s OK to be scared and sad. I’m right here with you.”
  • Can I die so I can be with Grammy/Aunt Maria? This question comes from a place of missing their loved one. It doesn’t mean a child actually wants to die. Stay calm and say, “I understand that you want to be with Grammy/Aunt Maria. I miss her too. When someone dies, they can’t play with blocks, or eat ice cream, or go on the swings anymore. She would want you to do all those things, and I do too.”
  • What is dying? Young children are not capable of fully understanding death. Grown-ups struggle with that too! It can help to offer a simple, concrete explanation. Say, “Aunt Maria’s body stopped working. She couldn’t eat, or play, or move her body anymore.”

Many young children process loss through their behavior.

Even if children don’t fully understand death, they do know that something profound and lasting has happened—as young as 3 months old! Toddlers may have intense tantrums or be very clingy. They may also show changes in sleeping or toileting patterns. These changes are usually temporary and diminish over time when caregivers respond with kindness, patience, and some extra love and attention.

Parents may notice toddlers playing “dying” games. Some children pretend play where a toy train or stuffed animal gets sick or hurt and “dies,” maybe even violently. Parents need to be reassured that this is very normal. Children show us through their play what they are thinking and worrying about. Consider adding a doctor’s kit or ambulance to the child’s toy choices. Parents can join in the child’s drama as long as they allow them to still lead the play. Over time, this focus will fade.

Young children tend to ask the same questions over and over. It might be hard for adults to keep answering the same questions about the death of a loved one. But this is an important way for toddlers to grasp what has happened. Young children learn through repetition, so hearing the same details over and over helps them make sense of the experience.

What about a parent’s grief?

Parents might wonder if it’s OK to grieve and cry in front of their child, and there may be cultural components to whether that feels comfortable. If parents emote in front of their children, it’s important for them to explain. They might say, “I am crying, because I’m sad that Grammy/Aunt Maria died. I miss her.”

Parents may need to be reminded that young children are naturally self-centered and should be told directly that none of this is their fault. This may be especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic, as children are being told they can’t see their friends or grandparents “so we all stay healthy,” and some might have even understood that they can infect their loved ones. (Older toddlers can pick up bits and pieces of information about the death and erroneously feel guilty. Try explaining “vector” to a 3-year-old!) If a parent’s grief becomes overwhelming, encourage them to access support. If a child’s grief is intense, persistent, interferes with their play or learning, or affects their behavior pervasively, they may need support too.

Help children remember.

Parents should talk and reminisce about their friend or family member with their child. They can highlight memories of loved ones in a number of ways. They might say, “Let’s make Grammy’s favorite muffins this morning. We can remember her while we bake together.” Or, “Aunt Maria always loved tulips; let’s plant some tulips and remember her every time we see tulips.”

Sarah MacLaughlin, LSW, and Rebecca Parlakian, M.Ed., contributed to this post. Sarah is a social worker, parent educator, and author of the award-winning, bestselling book, What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children. Rebecca is ZERO TO THREE's senior director of programs and develops resources for parents, alongside training parents and early childhood professionals.