How do I talk to my child about a death in the family?

What guidance does the Bible provide?

Death is one of the most difficult subjects to talk about, especially if parents are coping with loss and working through grief also. It can be difficult to know how to help your child deal with the mystery of death, but it is important to help children process this grief in pieces they can understand.The Bible often speaks about death. In Psalm 23:4 David reminds us of God's presence in the midst of sorrow: "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me, your rod and your staff, they comfort me."In John 14:1-4, we see that God is preparing a place for us when we experience death. Jesus says, "Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going." One of the most encouraging verses in the Bible reminds us that death does not separate us from God when we trust Him: "For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:38-39) Conversations during this time can also help children understand salvation and God's desire for us that death is not the end.

Things to Think About:

Parents are hesitant to talk to children about death, often because they are uncomfortable with their feelings. Children may even fear their own death after losing a loved one. Talking about death is much easier for parents when they have developed a habit of everyday conversation with their children and are consistent in weaving faith into their daily conversations in life. When we instill a trust in God and His plan of salvation for us, we can draw from His promises with our children as we talk about hard subjects like death. Even when we can't make sense of death, we can find comfort in His Word. Here are some simple tips for your discussion:

  • Explain the death in developmentally appropriate language. Young children are very literal thinkers; they won't understand the finality of death. An elementary child may be able to comprehend the basics of loss, but may experience feelings of guilt. Use the resources below as a guide to your child's understanding.
  • Choose your words carefully. Using terms like "he went away" or "is sleeping" may cause fear in your child. Even the term "he is sick" may cause future concern if a child becomes ill. Listen to your child and the clues he gives you for understanding or fear.
  • Acknowledge your child's feelings. Listen well; reassure your child that it is ok to be sad or afraid; encourage them and pray with them for God's comfort.
  • Acknowledge your own grief. Sadness and grieving model responses for your children that will help them process their own grief and move through these stages.
  • Find a special way to remember the person and cope with the loss. A special picture, a new stuffed animal, a trip to a special place that holds a special meaning are ways to help your child celebrate the life of the person who has died, and to memorialize them in a positive way for the future.

What do I do now?

Every child is unique, and your approach to discussing this difficult subject will vary according to the child's age and situation. Be honest with your child and encourage questions. Create an atmosphere of comfort and openness. Let your child know it's ok to feel sad at this loss. Leave your child with a trust in a loving God, who has good plans for us (Jeremiah 29:11.) Praying with your child through this difficult time will help them develop a deeper trust in a sovereign God who is in control of everything. Keep the lines of communication open and allow for further questions and conversations in the future.

Want to go deeper?

This article helps parents distinguish normal and unhealthy signs of grieving in a child:

Special Challenges - Death

This article gives practical tips for helping your child grieve in a healthy way:

How to Help Your Child GrieveT

his book offers an approach for answering the tough question of death with honesty and comfort:Joey O'Connor: Children and Grief: Helping Your Child Understand DeathThese children's books may be helpful to read with your child:

  • Shriver, Maria: What's Heaven?
  • White, E.B.: Charlotte's Web
  • Cochran, Bill: The Forever Dog