How to explain to a child that someone they love has passed away

December 22, 2015

One of the hardest parts of suffering a bereavement can be explaining to a child what has happened when someone that they love has passed away. Children often don’t understand the concept of dying and can find it hard to accept the finality of it. Here are some ideas for how you can find a way to make it easier for a child to accept what has happened.

How to tell them?

Where possible you should try to deliver the news to a child yourself, and to do it in a calm setting where they feel comfortable and can express their emotions.

The way that you actually share the news can differ depending on the circumstances of the bereavement. For example, if the person has had a period of illness then you can use this to explain what has happened. The child will remember that the last time they saw your loved one they weren’t well and you can explain that unfortunately their health did not improve. Alternatively, it might be that you just say that you have some very sad to news to tell them. The most important thing is that you are honest and reassure the child.

What to tell them?

Children learn a great deal about the world from adults, and failing to explain that a loved one has passed away properly can lead to confusion and embarrassment later down the line. You don’t need to tell them every detail, but you should avoid telling them that the person has simply gone to sleep or that they have moved away or gone on holiday. If possible let your child ask questions and if you are unable to answer a question then ask them what they think, as this allows you to get an understanding of how much they know before you answer so that you can avoid upsetting them unnecessarily.

Children can find it very hard to understand what death is and can react in drastically different ways, from silence to anger to tears and might even be physically sick, so you need to be prepared for a wide range of emotions. They might want and need to be hugged immediately, or they might not. However, it can help to explain the differences between life and death, for example “Grandma was very ill and now that she has died she doesn’t talk, eat, or breathe anymore but she also doesn’t feel any pain” or “when people get very old their bodies stop working, just like when your toy runs out of batteries”. As silly as these explanations can sound they can help a child to understand what has happened.

When to tell them?

While it might seem like a good idea to delay telling your children it makes sense to do it as soon as possible. The days, weeks and months surrounding a loss can be difficult for everyone involved and it is likely that your child will know that something is wrong. You also don’t want to run the risk of them finding out by other means.

If you’ve recently had a bereavement and you are trying to help your child through what has happened then you shouldn’t be hard on yourself, it is perfectly fine to show emotions in front of your child and it is normal not to have all the answers. Ask for help from friends, family and school staff, who may be able to support you in such a difficult time.

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