Communicating death to a child

Grief Support

We empathize with how the death of a loved one can be a difficult experience.

They may be gone, but they are far from forgotten. It’s an experience nobody expects yet leaves scars in our hearts that last a lifetime.

In our own way, Algordanza wishes to help you cope with grief and loss. A local certified Psychotherapist stands with us in this endeavor and brings you the following articles to help you in times of grieving:

Communicating death to a child
Communicating death to a child
Written by:Sasha Javadpour - Founder|Director|Psychotherapist-Hirsch Therapy Pte. Ltd.

Communicating death to a child
“When we don’t tell kids what is happening around them,
they are going to imagine what is going on.”

~ Andrea Warnick ~

It is a difficult reality that even our young are not exempted from the impact of death and grief. Unfortunately, approximately 4-7% of children will face at least one loss by the time they are 16 years old. Talking to a child about death is a big concern for many caregivers, and many tend to avoid it as much as possible. Some because they themselves are not well equipped to manage their own grief, others because they wish to shelter their children from the pain of grief. However, death is an inevitable part of life that will impact everyone it comes into contact with, regardless of age. Although young children may not fully grasp the concept of death, what they learn from their caregivers will have a huge influence on any subsequent encounters with grief. It is, therefore, critical that caregivers are able to help their children understand, process, and draw meaning from the experience. This makes how we communicate with children about death a very important subject to tackle.

Children are very keen observers and quickly pick up on changes in our body language, facial expressions, and emotions. They will be able to notice it when adults choose to bottle things up instead of communicating. Children will, in turn, hesitate to enquire out of fear, thus leaving many questions unanswered. This can create a lot of uncertainty that will lead to a build-up of stress and worry in a child. For this reason, opening up lines of communication will allow children to ask their questions and help caregivers impart the information that they need to process this experience.

Caregivers are often conflicted about communicating with their children about death to protect them from unnecessary exposure to a potentially traumatic event. Caregivers may then choose to withhold or distort certain facts from their children. This, however, can be more damaging to the child in the long-term. Children are not passive creatures waiting for someone to fill their heads with knowledge. When left to it, children will actively find ways to build up their knowledge about the world. It is important to note here that before the age of seven, children have not yet developed the ability for logical thought. This means that at this stage, children are ruled by their imagination. An undefined concept of death can materialise to the child in the form of a terrifying shadow that removes members of their intimate circle.

This entity, alone, can be much more terrifying and traumatic than the actual event. It is, therefore, critical that caregivers learn to communicate openly and honestly with their children when they confront death for the first time. By doing so, the caregiver helps to remove as much uncertainty as possible so that the child’s imagination is not allowed to run completely wild.

When communicating with a child about death, we need to keep a few things in mind. These are their age, honesty, and patience.


When it comes to talking to a child about death, one important thing to keep in mind is their age. How we communicate to a child will then have to be specifically tailored to their level of understanding. Children tend to learn about death in three developmental stages.

Stage 1 (2 – 5 years): Children cannot yet distinguish between life or death. They won’t be able to understand the irreversibility of death at this stage. They may see death as temporary and reversible.

Stage 2 (5 – 9 years): Children begin to understand death to mean the end of life. They may begin to understand that all living things will die one day and that death is permanent, but may not be able to fully relate it to themselves.

Stage 3 (9 years and above): Children begin to fully understand the finality and inevitability of death. As they grow older they begin to incorporate the understanding that death means the cessation of physiological and psychological functioning.

The rate at which children learn about death is highly dependent on exposure and culture. Children may see dead plants, insects, or animals. They may read about death in story books, see death in movies, or act out death in theatrical plays. A child’s understanding of death is also heavily influenced by cultural means. This includes family culture, peer groups in school, and religious teachings. Children in today’s age are also strongly influenced by what they see on television and video games and will sometimes learn about death through these mediums as well. Before communicating with a child about death, it can be helpful to be aware of their developmental stage and their influencers so that we can carefully tailor our approach to them.

Children learn how to express their grief by observing the adults around them. Adults can best support grieving children by demonstrating that it is okay to be sad and helping them make sense of the loss. Through open and honest communication, children learn to express their distressing feelings that are surrounded by uncertainty.

By using simple, honest, and concrete terms, we can help alleviate a lot of the uncertainty. For example, messages such as “Grandma is sleeping now” can be very confusing and terrifying for a child. As a result, the child may fear going to sleep because they are terrified that they may not wake up just like grandma. Children, especially at a young age, may blame themselves for what happened. By being open and honest in our communication, we can help them see that they are not at fault. Regular check-ins with the family to find out how everyone is doing can further help to open up channels for understanding and reflection. This can aid in building perspective for the child and allow them a space to voice out any concerns they may have and to receive constructive feedback. It is important to keep in mind here that it is okay if you do not have all the answers. An honest confession of ignorance will be very much appreciated by your child. This fosters rapport and can help the child to feel better about not knowing certain things and more comfortable with asking questions.

It is also alright to include children in your grieving process. By expressing your own emotions or crying in front of your child, you are letting them know that it is okay for them to express their feelings too. Just remember to include them in the thought process. By letting them know why you are expressing yourself, it helps to create a healthy template for them to follow. For example, by letting them know, “Mommy is crying because she is sad that she won’t be able to hug Grandma again” can provide much needed information for a child and resolve a lot of uncertainty. It can also help to remove any guilt the child may have when they understand that, “Mommy is not crying because she is upset with me, but because she is sad about losing Grandma”.

Children will develop their own unique way of expressing and handling their grief- related emotions. Some children may begin to ask a barrage questions, while others may express themselves through art and play. Regardless of how a child chooses to express themselves, they need a sensitive and non-judgemental response from their caregiver. By being present during these activities and maintaining open communication, adults can gain valuable insight into their child’s mental state.

Children also learn through repetition and may ask the same question over and over again. Throughout this process, it will be good to keep in mind that children will need our continuous support, stability, honesty, and reassurance that they are safe and being cared for. By keeping this in mind, it will help in extending our patience and care for them.

We all, including children, need time to mourn the dead and heal. By being open and honest with our emotions and our communication, we teach our children that it is alright to do so as well. When this is coupled with love and reassurances of care, we help our children learn about death and grief in a healthier and more beneficial way.