How and When to Tell a Child of the Death of a Loved One

Death is something for which we are never fully prepared, and children much less so. A lot of patience, tact and sincerity are some of the resources necessary to give them this type of news.
How and When to Tell a Child of the Death of a Loved One
Laura Reguera

Written and verified by the psychologist Laura Reguera.

Last update: 13 December, 2023

Life is something marvelous and unique, but it’s going to end at some point. This is inevitable. When this happens with a loved one, our whole world falls apart. Also, this difficult situation can turn even more complicated if you have to tell a child of the death of a loved one.

This situation makes an endless string of worrying and negative thoughts rush through our minds. In addition to the sadness of the death, now there’s the anxiety of having to give this bad news to our youngsters. Although it’s unpleasant, we can perform this difficult task in the best way for everyone involved. Read on to find out how…

“Death is not something we should fear. While we are, death is not. And when death comes into being, we are not.”
-Antonio Machado-

Telling a child about the death of a loved one: a vital part of their grieving process

When someone important to you dies, you go into shock and block yourself off. The impact of the news hits you hard and makes it hard for us to create a new reality.

The reality is that you will never again see this person or hear their voice again. At first, this is normal. But over time, you have to accept the reality that this person is no longer around and you have to move on with your life.

This doesn’t mean that you don’t love them anymore. It simply means that you have to reach a point in your mourning process where you accept their departure.

A problem arises if the grief doesn’t happen or develops incorrectly. In these cases, the process might get complicated or become pathological and your life could be affected.

“Death doesn’t exist, pople only die when they are forgotten. If you can remember me, I’ll always be with you.” 
-Isabel Allende-

The same thing happens with children. Although we may not know how to tell them of the death of a loved one, the fact of them knowing this news and going through their own grief is essential. Knowing about the loss means their grief won’t turn into an ocean they will drown in.

Also, you may be preventing other more serious problems such as drug consumption, delinquency, confusion, low self-esteem, poor performance, risky sexual behavior, suicide, or teenage pregnancy.

A boy is looking at the ocean while sitting on a soccer ball.

The importance of telling a child of the death of a loved one

The truth is that not touching the subject in order to avoid that initial suffering is a mistake. Children are great observers and will notice that something is not right.

Lying to them is simply going to undermine their trust and make them feel undervalued. It will also make them feel strange and insecure in an environment where they could previously ask questions and express themselves.

Also, it could make them feel guilty, as well as encourage the emergence of mistaken ideas about the end of life. Talking about death with your children could help you know how they truly feel about it, about their worries and feelings on the subject. It’s this knowledge that will guide you on how to help them. Without it, it’ll be very hard for you to know how to help them,.

“You have to expect the unexpected and accept the unacceptable. What is death? If we still don’t know what life is, how can we be troubled by knowing the essence of death?”

Hence, it’s very important to talk about this topic just like you talk about other everyday subjects. This is certainly something children will have to deal with in the near future. Just like with other complicated situations in life, avoiding telling them about death is not the solution.

The moment of truth: telling the child about the death

Now you’re clear on the fact that not telling the child is not the solution. But…who is going to tell them? Who is going to talk to them? When is the best time to do so? And, above all, what and how do you tell them? In order to answer these questions, let’s tackle them one by one.

First of all, it’s best if the parents or other very close family members take on the task of telling the child about the death of a loved one. It’s extremely important that the children feel safe and trust the person who is giving them the news.

This way, they’ll be able to ask all of the questions they want and you’ll be able to offer them support in coming up with an answer. In order to do this, you should talk to them as soon as possible… Delaying the inevitable doesn’t help!

Maybe they’ll ask you things you don’t know how to answer. It’s okay to tell them that you don’t know or that you also have that same question. Thus, if they come up with an answer, they’ll share it with you and you’ll be able to talk about it together. 

A sad boy is sitting down.

The do’s and don’ts of giving the news

It’s important to choose a place that is calm, familiar, and safe for the child. Once there, your message should be targeted to the age of the child, without using euphemisms or abstract explanations. Giving too many details is also not going to help. Lastly, there’s a set of expressions it’s best you don’t use when telling the child about the death of a loved one:

  • “They have gone far away” or “They’re in heaven now” These phrases can provoke feelings of incomprehension and abandonment.
  • “It was God’s will.” This could make the child think that God is responsible for the death and that he’s at fault for their loved one no longer being around.
  • “It’s okay, he didn’t suffer. He died in his sleep.” This could make the child develop a fear of falling asleep.
  • “He was very sick.” This could make the child think he could die from any illness.

It’s very important to keep all of this in mind when you have to tell a child about the death of a loved one. Don´t forget that this is a complex task and that the more normalized the topic of death is in the home, the easier it will be to talk about it when a loved one does pass.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.