Skip to main content

Talking to Children About Illness and Death

No matter a child's age, it's important to talk to him or her about a loved one who is dying or has died. What the child will comprehend depends on his or her age. As a rule, children are very literal. If you say a loved one who is dying is going on a long trip, the child will expect that person to return.

Tips for Communication

When talking to a child about death and dying

  • Use simple, non-medical terms to describe the situation, and ask the child to explain back to you how he or she understands it.
  • Encourage the child to ask questions and try to identify what is behind the question. For example, does the child fear that you may also become ill or die? Realize that children often handle grief differently than adults. They may not cry, but rather want to go out and play. They might prefer to draw, or they might act up.
  • Reassure the child that he or she is loved. Let the child know that you and others are sad, too.
  • Tell the child what will happen after the loved one dies, so he or she knows what to expect. Describe the funeral and other rituals, explaining why they occur.

For more guidance on helping a child cope with death, visit Caring Connections or the American Hospice Association’s website.

If your child is the one with a serious illness, learn more about care for your child and read tips for being a caregiver.