helping children cope with death

5 Tips For Helping Children Cope With Death—Or The Possibility Of It

When a child is fighting cancer, the topic of death may come up at some point—even though a cancer diagnosis does not necessarily mean that a child is going to die from the disease.

And death can be a very emotionally challenging issue to talk about with children, especially when they are possibly considering it from their own point of view.

Knowing how to approach the conversation may make it a little less overwhelming. Here are 5 tips for helping children cope with death—or the possibility of it.

Children More Aware Of Death Than Adults May Realize

Many—if not most—kids today are aware of the concept of death, even if they may not fully or consciously know it, says the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

In fact, they can be exposed to death a lot more than adults may realize. Maybe they see dead insects on the sidewalk or watch a cartoon character die on TV. Or they might read about a person who dies in a book. In that sense, kids recognize that death exists.

But even though kids can be a lot more aware than adults give them credit for, they may hesitate to talk about death because they’re afraid of making their parents upset, says the Conversation Project, an organization that promotes end-of-life care discussions.

Not Talking About Death May Do More Harm Than Good

As adults—and especially as parents—our instinct is to shield our children from talking about death because it is such a serious topic. Unfortunately, avoiding these important conversations can sometimes end up making the situation worse.

That’s because kids may have a lot of gaps in their understanding of death, and those unknowns can create a lot of fear, according to the NIH. So, if they don’t feel that they can talk about death openly, they may internalize those unknowns even more.

Children Understand Death Differently, Depending On Age

As children grow up, they go through different stages of understanding death, says the NIH.

Preschoolers tend to believe that death is something temporary and can be undone. But by the early elementary school years, they start to see that not only is death not reversible, it is something that all living beings experience.

During their preteen and teen years, kids take that understanding a step further and realize that they will eventually die, too. Then, they might start to look more deeply into their own views about life and death.

helping children cope with death

5 Tips For Helping Children Cope With The Possibility Of Death

1. Look At Your Own Feelings And Beliefs About Death.

Taking time to think about your own views on death beforehand can make discussing it with your child a little bit easier, says the NIH.

Because kids can ask really tough questions when you least expect them to, knowing where you stand ahead of time can help you come up with better answers on the spot.

2. Let Your Child Lead The Conversation.

When you talk about death with your child, it’s important to let her lead the way, suggests the Conversation Project. Find out where her thoughts are at and what she’d like to know.

The discussion doesn’t have to happen all at once. Let her know that she can come to you with her thoughts or questions whenever she is ready.

3. Use Concrete, Age-Appropriate Language.

Explaining things in a way that is easy for your child to understand is important. Using examples that he is familiar with can help, according to the National Institutes of Health.

So, if a child is having a hard time understanding what death means in a physical sense, you may say something like, “When a bird dies, it doesn’t fly, chirp, or eat worms anymore.”

4. Be Honest.

If your child asks a question that you just don’t have an answer to, it’s okay to say, “I don’t know,” explains the NIH.

In fact, making up a false explanation in the heat of the moment can make the situation worse if he ends up finding out the truth later on.

5. Don’t Be Afraid To Ask For Help.

It’s okay to turn to others—including members of your child’s care team—for help when talking to your child about death, says the Conversation Project.

Children’s Hospital & Medical Center also has a list of resources aimed at helping children cope with death.

Christy Hogan
My background is in child development, and I use this knowledge to connect and build trust with patients and families. I’ve been a child life specialist for more than 20 years.

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