How To Talk With Your Kids About Death
Here’s a statistic that will never change: ten out of ten people will die. That’s an absolute certainty.
There’s no skirting the grave, drinking from a well which gives you everlasting life, or trading your soul to avoid death. It is a guarantee awaiting every living creature.
And the inevitability of death is something that your kids need to learn about.
They need to recognize the limits of life, their blink of time here on earth, and the hope of the resurrection—and how to live right now with that reality in mind.
The culture surrounding death
The American culture simultaneously avoids death and celebrates it.
- Dead bodies are painted to look real for a funeral, yet movies depict the gore of death.
- The news generally informs viewers with the details about a murder, but books provide the full details.
- Lives turn to statistics in health class or impersonal stories in a textbook, while superheroes indulge in erasing the bad guys from the face of the earth.
Real life (or at least popcorn and a soda) distract our hearts from the impact of death. Sooner or later your child will encounter death—a grandparent, peer, celebrity, or neighbor.
- A pandemic that takes countless lives.
- Shooters who rampage on innocent people.
- Violence in schools.
- The latest movie or binge-worthy Netflix show.
- And even extreme rates of suicide by young people.
Ready to eliminate culture’s bystander definition of death and rightly explain life and death to your kids? Here’s how.
1. Acknowledge that death is different depending on the circumstance.
Seeing Grandma die at 91 years old is tough, but we know that old people eventually die. Learning that a soldier was killed in battle is sad, yet we understand that they generously chose to risk their life to serve our country.
However, hearing about a two year old being killed by a tornado feels different—sad, unfortunate, and wrong. Even more so, hearing that an adolescent peer took their own life by suicide can be shocking and strange.
Each death will be different based on the cause of death, your child’s relationship to the deceased, and how their death will impact your family’s life going forward.
2. Don’t avoid the subject.
Talking about the birds and bees is awkward, but you still have that conversation. Discussing death can also be uncomfortable, but your children rely on you to help them process death. By refraining from the topic, your kids naturally infer that you shouldn't talk about death, that it shouldn’t bother you, or that it is not worthwhile to discuss—all of which are not true.
Mom, Dad, or concerned adult: be courageous enough to start the conversation about death. Expect it to be uncomfortable. Anticipate questions or tears. Wash away your child’s assumptions and replace them with the truth.
Haven’t experienced a death in your inner circle? Talk about it anyway. Have an aging grandparent? Start the conversation about how someone dies. Hear of local teens committing suicide? Use that as an opportunity for conversation.
3. Use clear words.
Sleep, passed away, gone to heaven. Those are just a few of the phrases that our culture uses to describe death. You know what those words mean, but your child has no idea.
Explain the terms to your kids and don’t shy away from the real words: dead, death, dying. Don’t forget to also use and define other death-related terms:
- Medical words (like cancer or heart attack)
- Morgue, cremation, remains, urn
- Funeral, funeral home, hearse
- Casket, coffin
- Viewing, visitation, funeral service
- Grave, graveyard, tombstone
4. Explain the cause of death.
As always, use discernment to qualify how many details your child needs to hear. Young children can be given the “umbrella” answer while teens can hear the whole story.
This topic is easy to forget because the conversation usually turns in another direction. But be sure to explain the cause of death so your child doesn’t create their own reasons. It’s not unheard of for a kid to think their mean words caused their cousins death, or that they did something wrong which made Mommy sick.
Don’t let their imagination wander. Clearly explain the cause of death.
Grandma was old, and when you get old your body starts to “turn off.” Her heart stopped beating and then she died.
The toddler was sleeping in her crib when the tornado came. Her house collapsed on her and she died.
You know how your kids can’t think about anything but cookies and presents as Christmas draws near? Pretend that this situation is similar. Assume that your child has a million thoughts swirling in their head, just like when the bathtub drain threatens to suck down the rubber duckies.
After a conversation about death, have your child repeat back what they heard, or ask them the same questions that they asked you (and see if they reply with the correct answers).
Re-explain or clarify if necessary. And pick up another round of discussion in a few days.
Has your daughter grown more reserved? Is your son suddenly hyperactive? Have your kids started bickering more? Are your teens glued to their screens?
Don’t forget to observe how death impacts your child. Everyone will respond differently, but you know your child best. Everyone needs time to mourn and comprehend death, but most children require guidance or help along the way.
Death is hard.
Death is hard. Period. Death is never easy. Grief is a process, and you have the opportunity to walk alongside your child as they navigate the realities of death.
As believers in Jesus Christ, you can point your child toward their hope in the resurrection, that death unites them in heaven with the Heavenly Father. Hope changes everything, but the sting of death will never fade away.
If your child needs a safe space to process grief or death, our team can help. Mom and Dad, you’re not immune either. We can help you along the journey of grief too.
Clinical Director and Co-Owner at Redeemed Life Counseling