Talking with Children About Death

Very few adults feel relaxed talking with children about death.  The difficulty is compounded when a parent has to talk to a child from 3 to 16 years about the death of a grandparent.

Our natural inclination as parents is to protect the child from the hurt that comes from learning that someone we love has died. If we are totally honest, we are probably also a little afraid of letting the children detect our own emotional state.  After all, parents are supposed to put on a brave face for the sake of their children.

The truth is that most children handle the death of a loved grandparent pretty well.  The most important thing for them is to be included in all the happenings that are associated with a death in the family.  More harm can be done if they are shut out of what is obviously an important family event.  They may feel as if they are ‘second-class citizens’ if the adults seem to ignore them when a death occurs.


Therefore, it is important for children to be allowed to see the body of the person who has died if that is their wish.  This viewing may take place at the hospital immediately after death or at the funeral premises once the body has been placed in a coffin.  The best time often depends on the circumstances surrounding the death.


It is also a good idea if the children are introduced to the funeral director who comes to arrange the funeral.  There are parts of the funeral proceedings that the children might like to be involved with.  For example, there is no harm in asking if they would like to place a special memento on the coffin.

The hardest question to answer is “Why do people die?”

The simplest explanation is to talk about the life cycle of all living things.  Nearly all children will have planted seeds, watched them sprout, bud, blossom, and grow into full vigour, gradually wilt and finally die.  Our natural world is full of such examples of death around us in the midst of life.  It is obvious to a child that grandparent is a very, very  old person indeed!  His/her body has worked hard for a long time to pass on life to other members of the family and to share many happy times.  Now the parts of the body are worn out and can no longer do the things they once did.


With very young children you may find yourself saying the same thing over and over again.  That’s fine. that is exactly how you had your learning reinforced when you were young.


Children are also inquisitive about the difference between burial and cremation.  the easiest way to talk about these topics is to be completely factual.


All human societies have recognised the need to dispose decently and with dignity of the bodies of members of their families after death.  the pyramids are the greatest example from history of burial customs.  In our society there are two ways of handling the final placement of the body.  It may be buried in the earth or carefully burned in a special kiln or furnace.  In all cases, the body is placed in a coffin to protect it until the burial or cremation.


If you don’t know an answer or the child is unconvinced, explain that you will find out for them and do so straight away.  Your funeral director is only a phone call away and has had plenty of experience with such explanations.

Don’t say things like “Papa went to the hospital and they couldn’t fix him up”. The child may think that hospital is a place to avoid for fear of death.


Be Careful with comments like “God called nana to be with the angels” You may create the impression that God and angels are nasty because they have deprived the child of someone the child wanted to be with.


Don’t say “He’s gone on a long holiday in the sky” The child will never let you get on a plane to visit your sister in Melbourne.

Don’t say “Nana’s too upset to talk to you now about Papa”  Children get upset too and nana might just love the chance to do what she has always done for the grandchildren when they’ve been hurt.

Don’t say “He’s just sleeping” when you see the body at the viewing.  Children have to go to sleep every night and it is not helpful if they start to associate death with sleeping,

Don’t say “Funerals are no place for children” It’s unlikely you have had enough experience to pronounce judgement on the matter.  In fact, there is something re-assuring about young lives bidding goodbye at a funeral to a life that is over.