Discussing Death with Children

When discussing death, always use language that the child will understand. Parents and health care providers should consider the following:

  • Infants do not have language skills; however, they do react to physical comfort. When an infant is dying, a comforting touch and holding are as important for the infant as the caregiver. Communicating love can be expressed through a gentle touch and cuddling.
  • For toddlers and young children, use concrete language. Avoid misleading terms for death, such as "sleep" and "passed away." A young child may be afraid to go to sleep if it is associated with death.
  • Young children may ask very direct questions about death, if given the opportunity. It is important to be honest and consistent with your response. If they ask a question that you do not know the answer to, it is acceptable for you to say so, rather than make up an answer. Children at a very young age can detect falseness in an answer. They also may receive inconsistent information if answers from different people are misleading or avoid the truth.
  • Teenagers may want to discuss death with a friend or someone other than a parent. Encourage communication in any manner that will help the child express his/her fears and concerns.

It is important to assess the child’s and family’s beliefs and understanding of death and life after death when communicating with them. Children may have unexpressed fears or concerns that they are not comfortable talking about, or that they do not know how to express.

Source: Used with permission from: University of Virginia Health Systems, "Pediatric Health Topics — Discussing Death with Children." Available on-line at www.healthsystem.virginia.edu/UVAHealth/peds_terminallyill/discuss.cfm.