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Talking With Your Child About Death and Dying

Sample wordings and embedded principles.

Gan Khoon Lay, Noun Project, Public Domain
Source: Gan Khoon Lay, Noun Project, Public Domain

What should you say to your child about death and dying? Of course, that will depend on the child’s age and the parent’s values, but the following might be useful.

How to Tackle Common Conversations About Death and Dying

For three situations, here is sample wording. After each, I present the undergirding thinking and principles.

Your five-year-old sees a relative dying in pain who is living with you. Your child doesn’t ask you about it but you decide to say something.

Sample answer: "It’s hard for me to see Grandpa like this. How about you?" (The child nods.) "Grandpa was unlucky. Even many very old people don't experience that. Is there anything you want to tell or ask me?"

After answering the child's questions, it's OK to change gears. "OK, enough of that. Do you want to [insert pleasant activity that the child would like]?"

That answer acknowledges the parent's feelings, but briefly, and asks a question so the focus is on the child’s needs.

Saying, “Grandpa was unlucky. Even many very old people don't experience that" addresses a child’s likely concern: Will this happen to me? The answer is honest yet reassuring. Again it's brief and ends with a question so the conversation leads where the child wants. And sometimes, the child doesn’t want to explore more and that’s OK. Some people do best by processing in the moment, others later, and still others by suppression and distraction.

Grandpa died and the child asks, “When will I see him again?”

Sample answer: (said in an only moderately sad tone) "You won’t. Most of us live a long time and then we’re done. That’s why we make the most of our time and why Grandpa so enjoyed spending time with you. We can always look at his pictures and talk about him. Do you have a question about all this?”

That answer avoids deception, which later would be discovered and thus reduce trust. The answer works for both atheist and religious people. It avoids discussing the more difficult and not then relevant question of why even some children die. Yet by ending with “Do you have a question about all this?” the door is open to whatever the child might want to know.

Your teen engages in risky behavior, for example, doing drugs or driving aggressively. You express concern. The teen responds with the common young person's denial of mortality: “I’m not going to die. I’m careful. Gimme a break.”

Sample answer: "You’re right, you probably won’t die, but there’s a reason that car and motorcycle insurance companies charge teen boys much more: They get into more (and more serious) accidents, and if they do, they may die and/or experience agonizing pain. As you know, teens suppress the idea of mortality and think they’ll live forever. Alas, they don't. Plus, I know you love me and don’t want me to worry every time you go out and drive. I’m not the kind of parent who’ll issue a prohibition like, 'One ticket and I take away the keys' but I ask you to think about whether you want to be a safe driver, for your sake, my sake, and because your friends that count will respect you more."

That answer starts with agreement ("I know you probably won't die), making the child feel you won't just arbitrarily be oppositional.

The answer continues with core facts. Then the answer balances that rationality with feeling, head and heart: “I know you love me and don’t want me to worry…”

Saying, “I’m not the kind of parent who’ll issue a prohibition” reminds the teen that the parent isn't unduly severe.

The answer concludes with an ask rather than a demand, citing the benefit to parent and child, including a recognition that teens heavily value what peers think.

Principles to Keep in Mind

Here are a few additional thoughts that can make it easier for you to deal with death and dying, and in turn may help you be your best self when talking with your child.

  • In talking to anyone, but especially children, the goal should be to be truthful while minimizing undue anxiety and sadness.
  • A silver lining in death is that it reminds us that life is finite and thus encourages us to make the most of our time.
  • If the dying process is too painful, there’s usually a way to end it. Increasingly, jurisdictions are allowing physician-assisted death.
  • The idea of death may be less scary if we recognize that after we die, we’ll be no more aware of being dead than we were of being alive before we were born.

The Takeaway

Parent-child conversations about death are among the most difficult. I hope that you'll find at least one idea in this post helpful.

I read this aloud on YouTube.