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Explaining death to kids

Updated: Nov 21, 2020

Death and loss can come as a surprise or a long awaited arrival. No matter if it is a physical loss of a loved one or pet, or an emotional loss such as abandonment, it can hit us all very hard and different. As adults, we are supposed to be equipped with all of the coping strategies to handle death and are often expected to move on quickly. But what do we do when we not only have to process a death or loss, but we also have to explain and support our children through it as well? How do we know when to break the news? When is it okay to overshare, or yet, is it better for the kids if they know little information? Couple this with our own emotional upheaval, it can be very overwhelming to navigate everyone response.

One thing to keep in mind is that everyone process loss differently. No matter your age, experience with bereavement, gender, cultural implications, and so on, not one person's experience will look the same. It will not follow an exact pattern or check the same boxes as someone else. There are, however, typical behavioral responses that have been studied and shown to be the most common and overlapping. Below are the 5 Stages of Coping with Death. Keep in mind that these are in no particular order and can be expressed in a number of ways. Some people may stay on one stage for a longer period of time than the next.

Denial - "This can't be happening, not to me." Denial is usually only a temporary defense for the individual. Denial can be the

conscious or unconscious refusal to accept facts, information, or the reality of the


Anger - "Why me? It's not fair!"; "How can this happen to me?"; '"Who is to blame?" The individual recognizes that denial cannot continue. Anger can manifest itself in

different ways. People can be angry with themselves, or with others, and especially

those who are close to them.

Bargaining - "I'll do anything for a few more years."; "I will give my life savings if..." This involves the hope that the individual can somehow postpone or delay death.

Usually, the negotiation for an extended life is made with a higher power in exchange for

more time or to "get them back". People facing less serious trauma can bargain or seek

to negotiate a compromise. For example "Can we still be friends?.." when facing a

break-up. Bargaining rarely provides a sustainable solution, especially if it's a matter of

life or death.

Depression -"I'm so sad, why bother with anything?"; "I miss my loved one, why go on?" During this stage, the person begins to understand the certainty of death. Because of

this, the individual may become silent, refuse visitors and spend much of the time crying

and grieving. In kids, especially males, sadness can often be expressed as anger. This

process allows the person to disconnect from things of love and affection. It is an

important time for grieving that must be processed.

Acceptance - "It's going to be okay."; "I can't fight it" In this last stage, individuals begin to come to terms with the tragic event. This stage

varies according to the person's situation.

Often referred to as DABDA (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance), this is a model that encompasses grief for people enduring a terminal illness as well as processing the loss of someone who has passed. There is no way to know how long a person will spend in each stage, the order that they will take, how these stages will be expressed both internally or externally, or the severity of behaviors. It is completely individual.

Children can absolutely grieve just like adults in many ways after a loss. What can be challenging for many caregivers is how to best support them during this time. One of the best pieces of advice that I can give is

Answer all questions asked and answer them honestly.

If a child is asking, its because they want to know. If you lie, fib, or bend the truth, you bet that kid will catch on which will cause confusion and loss of trust. If for what ever reason the information is not age appropriate and could do more mental harm than good, tell them you cannot share that at the moment but will when it is appropriate (think gruesome details of a death for example).

Continually, I have often seen caregivers try to make the child feel better by quickly shutting down the feelings of sadness. They see an upset child crying over the loss and are uncomfortable sitting with those feelings and that moment. This usually stems from the caregivers feelings of overwhelm managing the sadness or even their own challenges processing the loss them self. So they try to cheer the child up and have them stop crying.

One of the best ways to begin the process of acceptance, is by providing a space for the emotional exploration of the death. This includes crying or anger outbursts. When we try to shut down feelings, they may go away in that moment, but they will 100% return, often stronger. As a caregiver, it is important to allow your child a safe space in your heart and presence to LET IT OUT. Allow them to fully express their emotions and validate how they are feelings. Hold that moment for them and don't try to "zip them up" right away. Give hugs, let them lay on your lap, snuggle in bed, and wipe their tears. Once things start to mellow out, then slowly transition into shoring them up.

There are also many phenomenal books on death. Please browse my book list of therapeutic readings that you can do with your child here. Bibliotherapy is a wonderful way to explore a difficult topic.

I also have a free printable workbook available to help maintain the memories of a loved one below.

Download PDF • 1.42MB


Continually, here are some great tips on Coping with Grief so that you can acknowledge, integrate, and accept the truth of your loss. You can do these with children together. These are specifics Suggestions from

‘How to go on living when someone you love dies’ by Therese Rando

  • Give yourself permission to feel your loss and to grieve over it

  • Feel and deal with all of your emotions and thoughts about the death

  • Accept social support and tell others what you need

  • Do not isolate yourself

  • Expect to have some negative feelings and volatile reactions

  • Recognize that your grief will be unique

  • There is no one correct way to grieve, so you must first find the best way for yourself

  • Keep in mind that the death of your loved one will affect your family as well as yourself

  • Maintain a realistic perspective on what you can expect from others in your grief

  • Do not feel that you must accept the statements of others who seek to comfort you by telling you that you should feel better because you have other loved ones who are still alive

  • Do not let others needs determine your grief experience

  • Recognize that, despite your being unable to feel that it’s true, your pain will transform at some point if you continue to do your grief work

  • You repeatedly must allow yourself to cry and cry, talk and talk, review and review without the interruption of anyone else’s sanity

  • Look for those who can listen to you non-judgmentally and with permissiveness and acceptance.

Activities for being with your grief from Carole Lindroos, M.A.

  • Plant a memory garden

  • Create memory books, scrapbooks

  • Write poetry or journal*

  • Blow bubbles to send prayers to your loved one and others

  • Art – watercolor, pastels, markers, play dough, clay

  • Light candles

  • Create a collage about the life of your loved one with photos and mementos

  • Listen to music

  • Create an Healing Altar

  • Keep photos and mementos around

  • Write letters to loved one

* Ideas for Journal Writing. You may find it helpful to clarify your thoughts and feelings by writing them down. Below are possible topics to get you started or to help you come up with your own:

• A special memory that I have is…

• What I miss the most about __________ is…

• What I’d like to know is…

• What I’ve had the hardest time dealing with is…

• What is giving me the most comfort is…

• Ways in which __________ will continue to live on in me…

• Special ways I have for keeping my memories with me are…

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