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How to talk to your children about the death of a loved one

If the death of a loved one is inevitable, it is important to avoid trying to ‘shield’ them from it

As parents, our instinct is to protect our children, not just from danger, but from things that might cause them great upset or distress.

Sadly, it’s not always possible to protect our children from things outside our control. Sometimes, when the worst has happened, or will happen, we need to address it with children in spite of the anguish we fear it will cause.

The loss of a loved one can bring unbearable grief for adults who have a better understanding of what’s happening, so how then should we talk to our children about death?

Sometimes, we may know a death is coming, but one of the difficulties in deciding when to have a conversation with children, in this instance, is that “when somebody has a terminal diagnosis, they are reeling themselves and they’re trying to come to terms with it themselves”, says Maura Keating, national co-ordinator, Irish Childhood Bereavement Network. “They probably don’t want to give up total hope either, so they’ve still got some hope that maybe something will change, some new drug [will become available]. That’s one of the reasons they can be hesitant to explain it to the children.

We know as adults that all living things die and that death is final. Up to a certain age, or developmental stage, children don’t understand that

“The other fundamental reason is, as a parent, we’re really trying to shield our kids from any pain or hurt. The reality is, children are picking up on everything that’s going on in the house. So, they’re seeing the person deteriorate. They’re noticing something. They’re overhearing conversations. They pick up on the vibe. They know there’s something wrong.


“They’re probably worrying about it in their heads, because they don’t fully understand it, but they get the sense there’s something wrong. Even though it’s people’s instinct to protect the kids, keep them away from it, when you know that the outcome is inevitable, that it’s definitely terminal, the more you explain and talk to children, the better. What you’re doing is helping them prepare and get their heads around the enormity of it. Even though it’s heartbreak to have to do it, you’re helping them process it. You’re giving them time to process it.”

But how do you start a conversation about death?

“First of all, you pitch the information at the child’s age or developmental stage,” says Keating. “Up to a certain point, the brain isn’t developed enough for them to cognitively grasp the enormity of death. We know as adults that all living things die and that death is final. Up to a certain age, or developmental stage, children don’t understand that.”

Very young children often don’t understand that death means the body stops working, says Keating. “I’ve had parents ringing me up with scenarios where a little baby had died and their five-year-old is getting very upset all the time wondering who’s feeding the baby. They don’t understand that the baby’s body has stopped working and doesn’t need food. You have to literally unravel that for them and break it down.

“One of the best things you can do in any of these situations is get them to tell you in their own words what they understand about what either is going to happen, is happening, or has happened. That gives you your base level, and from there you build on that”.

And should parents raise the conversation on a repeated basis?

“Checking in with them is always good,” Keating says. “Sometimes, it’s very difficult to have those conversations and kids certainly won’t have them if you sit them down and eyeball them. It’ll be more casual, short conversations, the shoulder-to-shoulder type conversations, either when you’re out for a walk or when you’re driving in the car, or if they’re colouring or playing Lego.

“Think about it like a jigsaw. When they’re very little, you’ll only give them an eight- or 10-piece jigsaw and as they get older they can do a 15-piece jigsaw, and then a few more years they’ll do a bigger jigsaw. So, you’re adding more pieces of jigsaw and that’s building a picture for them.”

And what about the type of language we should use?

“It’s really important to be honest with children and use real words and tell them the truth,” Keating explains. “Euphemisms, especially for little kids, blow their heads. Things like, ‘she’s in a better place now and she’s at peace’. Little kids can think, why did she go to that better place without us, can we not all go to this better place?”

In having these conversations, we’re telling children that they can, “come and ask questions. That it’s okay to talk about this.”

“Naming the emotions is helpful,” she continues, explaining that “sometimes you’re really angry with them because they left you. And other times you’re really sad because you miss them. And sometimes you just don’t want to think about them and pretend it didn’t happen”. This helps them to understand the complicated feelings of grief, she says.

For children, knowing they can have the conversation is important, Keating explains, as otherwise older children, in particular, can feel they need to bottle it up so as not to upset the adults in their lives.

As they begin to understand what’s happening or happened, what should parents expect?

“Don’t expect them to express their grief in the way that we express our grief. Some children will be very expressive. Some children will go very quiet.” Often it will come out “in their behaviour”.

“It’s so common for children, when they’re grieving, that when they’ve been told even really big news, you mightn’t get any reaction. You might get an extreme outburst or you might get no reaction. Sometimes, they just can’t deal with it. They can’t absorb it all. Sometimes, you’ll tell them some terrible news and they’ll listen and they’ll go ‘but can I still go to my friend’s house for a sleepover? Can I still go to the football match?’

“It’s often at the end of the day when all the distractions are over, that emotions can start bubbling up.”

And what about the concept of heaven, is that a conversation to be encouraged or discouraged?

“You do what works for your own family in these testing times,” Keating says. “You know your own children. You know what comforts and soothes them. You also know your own values and your own beliefs.

“For some people, that’s their narrative. But, at the same time, make it clear even if you’re saying they’re in heaven now and that’s your own personal narrative, that they’re not able to come back.”

The same applies to describing a loved one as “watching over you”, says Keating. “Children can take this very literally. Sometimes, it can feel like a comfort and sometimes it can feel a bit ominous.”

While the finality of death is very harsh for children, it is possible to offer comfort with a continuing bonds approach. Memory boxes, scrapbooks and sharing similar traits and hobbies can help children feel connected to their loved one.

The Irish Childhood Bereavement Network is organising a series of events across Ireland this November to highlight bereaved children’s needs. For more information see

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