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How to Talk to Kids About Death

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Health, Wellness, & Safety

Where death is concerned, most of us are still like children. We don’t want to talk about it. We don’t understand it. We are afraid and fascinated at the same time. Being a parent provides us with an opportunity to come to grips with death so we can point our children in the right direction.

Take advantage of the small deaths that bump into your child’s life. Talk about the dead bird on the sidewalk. Consider the goldfish that goes belly-up. What is it that’s missing in a dead thing that was present when it was alive? What does being dead mean?

For some parents, these questions have a religious or spiritual answer. Figure out what you believe – now, before a death happens – and figure out if you and the child’s other parent share the same views. Even if you don’t believe in an afterlife, realize that your child will encounter this idea from other kids. Do some thinking on the topic so you are sure of what you want to say when your child asks. Here are some questions to consider:

  • Do you believe that what is essential in a person lives on after death in some way? If so, how do you envision this “living on”? If you believe in an afterlife, does this apply to all people? Does it apply to pets and other animals?
  • What do you believe about causing the death of another being, including bugs and pests? Is causing a death ever justified?
  • What can you tell a child about the fate of the body itself after death? Can you describe this in relation to an animal, including a pet? Can you describe this in relation to a human being?
  • What do you believe about rituals like funerals and memorial services? Would you conduct something like this after the death of an animal like a roadside dead bird? Would you conduct something like this after the death of a pet? Would you include your child in something like this after the death of a human being?

When death intrudes into your child’s life, find a child-size memorial to enact or create. Assure your child that he is still safe. Help your child remember the deceased being fondly. What stories can be told and what artifacts can be treasured, including pictures? What things can be let go, including unpleasant memories?

Help your child understand that he’s not going to die immediately too. Get professional help for him if he seems to need it. Get professional help for yourself if you need it.

Obviously, discussions about death will be different with a teen than with a preschooler. But it’s important not to assume your older child has all the answers and doesn’t need your guidance. Your older child is likely to be more aware, and have more questions, than a younger person.

The death of a beloved pet or a human being is a powerful event. You will be sad too. You, like your child, will be puzzled and upset by death. There is no need to hide your grief. Death is a great leveler. Children and adults are equally affected and equally mystified. Be honest with your child and own your feelings.

It’s okay not to have all the answers.


© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.