What to Say and How to Say It

There’s no perfect time to share the news so children should be told as soon as possible, within reason. Wait until the end of the school day if that’s only a few hours. The main consideration is that you don’t want your child hearing the news unexpectedly from some other source or walking into a situation where there are a bunch of adults standing around crying or in shock, which could be very scary for him.

Be thoughtful about where to have the conversation. You want to tell your child about the death somewhere where he can feel free to have whatever reaction he is going to have, and that is probably not going to be a public place. You might have the impulse to lessen the blow by sharing the news in a happy location, like a favorite ice cream parlor, but know that a treat won’t make the news any less sad or difficult for the child.

Try to use direct language and be prepared to give a brief explanation of how or why the death occurred because children will be curious. You don’t have to go into a lot of detail, however. With kids you want to start with the minimum amount of information and then add more based on the questions they ask. As long as it’s done in a calm and compassionate way, it is best to keep explanations shorter, simpler and more direct.

Guidelines to keep in mind

The words you choose will vary depending upon the child’s age and developmental stage, but experts agree that no matter what the age of the child there are certain guidelines you should stick to.

  • Follow their lead. The kinds of questions and concerns that children have can be very different from those of adults. Giving children too much information can overwhelm them. It is better to let them ask questions and then answer in the best (and most developmentally appropriate) way you can. Don’t be surprised if young children are mostly concerned about themselves. That is simply how young children are.
  • Encourage children to express their feelings. Do not try to “protect” or “shelter” children by attempting to hide your own sadness. They will invariably know that something is wrong, but will be left feeling alone and confused. Hiding your own grief can also make children feel like the sadness they may be feeling is bad. However, try not to let children see you at your most upset moments, as they may begin to worry about you or feel insecure.
  • Don’t use euphemisms. Avoid phrases like “passed away,” “gone,” “we lost him.” Kids tend to be very literal, and this kind of fuzzy language leaves them anxious, scared and often confused. Or conversely, it may lead them to believe the deceased will come back and that death is not permanent.
  • Maintain normal routines as much as possible. Grief takes time but children benefit from the security of regular routines and knowing that life goes on.
  • Memorialize the person who died. Remembering is part of grieving and part of healing. This can be as simple as sharing memories of the person who died or bringing up the name of the person who died so that your child knows it’s not taboo to talk about and remember that person. It is important to keep photos around, too.