How to talk to children about death and dying

Use simple, concrete, honest language

  • It is best to say something like “Chris died. His body stopped working.” Avoid euphemisms like “she passed away,” “Jada went to sleep forever,” or “we lost grandma” as these statements can be confusing and upsetting to young children.
  • Talk about how healthy lungs work and how air goes in and out of them. Talk about how healthy bodies can run, jump, play, eat, talk, and breathe. Talk about how when someone dies, their body stops working, and they cannot run, jump, play, eat, talk, or breathe.
  • Every living thing will eventually die. Death is always caused by something physical; it’s best to explain why someone’s body stopped working in developmentally appropriate terms. Example: “Myra had a disease called cancer. Even though doctors and nurses tried to help her body fight the cancer, the cancer caused her body to stop working and she died. The cancer caused her lungs to stop breathing air and her heart to stop pumping blood.”
  • Children do not develop abstract thought until 9-12 years of age. Younger children are concrete thinkers, and young children do not yet grasp the finality of death. Rather, they see death as separation, and they may not understand death is permanent.

Provide reassurance and be patient

  • Children may ask the same questions over and over as they process. They may need to hear an answer multiple times to be able to integrate and understand the information.
  • Validate children’s feelings and assure them that their feelings are normal. Explain that the death is in no way their fault and they did not cause the death.
  • Familiarity and routine help children to feel secure. As much as possible, maintain consistency.
  • Children need reminders that they will always be taken care of and they will always be loved. They may worry about other family members or important people in their lives dying. Young children may ask things like “what will happen if mommy dies?” or “am I going to die?” Answer honestly and do not make promises you cannot keep. Instead, say things like “Mommy’s body is healthy right now and mommy plans to be with you for a long time. No matter what, you will always be loved and taken care of.”

Share your own thoughts and feelings

  • Children learn by observing others. As much as you are able, share your grief with your child. Let them see you expressing your feelings. Seeing you outwardly expressing your feelings and experiences will encourage them to do the same. If others in the child’s life attempt to hide their grief, sadness, and emotional experiences, children will learn to do the same.
  • Allow children to participate in goodbye rituals like funerals and the family grieving process. Prepare children ahead of time by explaining what to expect and what they will see and hear. Talk about why we have goodbye rituals, be with others we love, share memories, take time to share our sadness that he/she has died. 

Recommended Books

Book for parents/caregivers to help children & teens process life-threatening illnesses & death:

Beyond the Innocence of Childhood: Helping Children and Adolescents Cope with Life-Threatening Illness and Dying by Eleanor J. Deveau

Books for children to understand and talk about life-threatening illnesses:

Butterfly Kisses and Wishes on Wings by Elle McVicker

Ida, Always by C. Levis

When Someone You Love Has Cancer by Alaric Lewis

What Happens When a Kid Has Cancer: A Book About Childhood Cancer for Kids by S. Olsher

The Bald-Headed Princess by Meredith Ditmars

The Puddle Jumpers Guide to Kicking Cancer by Elizabeth Billips

Wreck This Journal by Keri Smith

Nowhere Hair by Sue Glader


Books for children whose siblings are chronically ill/chronically hospitalized:

Franklin Goes to the Hospital by Paulette Bourgeois

Hi, My Name is Jack: A book for the Healthy Siblings of Chronically Ill Children by C. Beall-Sullivan

When Molly was in the Hospital: A Book for Brothers and Sisters of Hospitalized Children by Debbie Duncan


Book with focus on teaching parents/caregivers to help children cope with grief:

Parents Guide to Raising Grieving Children by P. Silverman and M. Kelly


Books to focus on feelings with children:

Glad Monster, Sad Monster by E. Emberley and A. Miranda

In My Heart: A Book of Feelings by J. Witek

The Way I Feel by J. Cain

When Sadness Comes to Call by E. Eland

My Feelings are a Hurricane by A. Wallick

Hey Warrior by Karen Young

Hey Awesome by Karen Young


Book for parents/caregivers with focus on end of life planning and the dying process:

Hard Choices for Loving People by H. Dunn


Book (pamphlet) for parents/caregivers to explain the dying process in succinct language:

Gone from My Sight by B. Karnes


Books to explain death to children:

Lifetimes by R. Ingpen and B. Mellonie

Gentle Willow by J. Mills


Books to focus on children’s feelings about death:

Sad Isn’t Bad by M. Mundy

The Scar by C. Moundlic

When Someone Dies: A Children’s Mindful How-To Guide on Grief and Loss by A. Dorn

How I Feel: Grief Journal for Kids by M. Roldan

Why Do I Feel So Sad?: A Grief Book for Children by T. Lambert

The Memory Box: A Book About Grief by J. Rowland


Book for children about what happens to someone after they die:

The Next Place by W. Hanson


Books to focus on general loss/event with children:

A Terrible Thing Happened by M. Holmes

The Invisible String by P. Karst


Books about miscarriage and infant loss for children:

Something Happened: A book for parents & children who have experienced pregnancy loss by C. Blanford

No New Baby by M. Gryte

Am I Still a Sister? by A. Sims


Books about sibling loss for children:

Where’s Jess by M. Johnson

A Birthday Present for Daniel: A Child’s Story of Loss by J. Rothman

Lost and Found: Remembering a Sister by E. Yeomans

Since My Brother Died/Desde Que Murio Mi Hermano by M. Munoz-Kiehne

The Empty Place by R. Temes

A Little Bit of Rob by B. Turner

Lost and Found- Remembering a Sister by E. Yeomens