Newshub headline with Children's Wisconsin logo
How to talk to you kids about death Children's Wisconsin

The great beyond: How to talk to kids about death

Death, they say, is part of life. But for a child, when they lose a pet, a parent, a grandparent, a neighbor or a friend, they may process their grief differently than an adult would. As your child's caretaker, it's important you understand how to address their needs during these difficult times. 

Especially if you're also processing your own grief, it can be difficult to know how to talk about death with your child or understand changes you see in their behavior. Though the grief journey looks different for everyone, knowing how to help your child through the death of a loved one will ensure they process the event in a healthy way. 

Sharing news of a death with a child

The first conversation you have will likely be the one in which you share news of the death. While breaking this news is incredibly difficult, it's important to be honest and give your child space to react. 

  • Talk to them as soon as possible. A child should hear this news from someone they love and trust rather than hear it somewhere else. 

  • Model healthy emotions. The child will take cues from this trusted adult on how they should express their emotions. While expressing emotion in front of a child is perfectly healthy, if an adult is having difficulty controlling their emotions or expressing them in a healthy way, it may be wise to have another close adult share the news.

  • Move to a safe space. Even if you're in a place with little privacy (like a hospital or a school), take the child away to a different room or area to have this conversation. Talk with the child in a place where they can have a genuine reaction without restraint or fear of embarrassment. 

  • Be as direct and honest as possible. Be medically specific and honest, explaining exactly what happened at a developmentally appropriate level. Saying things like, "He went to sleep," or "Her body is resting forever," can create more uncertainty and worry for a child. They may think next time they're sick and fall asleep, they might die. Explaining the death in terms like, "He had a heart attack, his body stopped working and he's not alive anymore," will help them understand what actually occurred and grasp the finality of death.

Immediately after learning of a new death, kids are likely to have many questions. They may also express new worries, like worrying that their parents are going to die or worrying that they are going to die. They also may have an emotional expression, like crying or yelling. Create time to talk and acknowledge their feelings, answer their questions and discuss their fears. 

How kids process grief over a death

All children are unique, and they all react differently to different emotional situations. Grief also doesn't follow a timeline or schedule, so it's perfectly normal for a child to not have any reaction initially and show evidence of processing the death later on. Because kids have different cognitive thinking abilities at different ages, how they process grief might also look different depending on their age. 

  • Kids age 7 and under may regress to earlier developmental stages and show more clinginess, whining and separation anxiety. They also may display changes in their eating or sleeping habits. Because it can be hard for them to process the permanence of death at this stage, they often also have magical thinking, believing the person will be back or they'll see them at a future date.

  • Kids age 7 to 12 may still display some magical thinking but often understand a bit better that death is final. They sometimes also internalize responsibility for the death, believing that there was something they did (or could have done) that created this result. Kids at this stage may also experience setbacks or changes in their sleeping, eating or school habits and develop new worries about themselves and their parents. 

  • Teenagers may be a bit more expressive about what they're going through, but it's okay if your teenager doesn't want to talk, too. Sometimes teenagers prefer to talk with friends or other trusted adults (like coaches or teachers) about how they're feeling, which is okay — as long as they're finding some outlet for expressing themselves. 

Changes in behavior and increased feelings of sadness are to be expected as a result of grief at any age. Any extreme changes in behavior, like signs of depression, drug or alcohol use or suicidal thoughts, need to be addressed with a mental health professional right away. But it's normal for other changes in behavior to last for a while as the child processes their grief. 

As with any death, the first year can be particularly challenging as you reach "first" milestones (like a first holiday without that person or their first birthday in which they aren't alive to celebrate). Especially during the first six months when grief is the most raw, it's okay to give your child grace and understanding if they're behaving differently. 

Tips for helping kids cope with grief  

Kids will return to normal functioning eventually, but it's important to be patient and nurturing as kids work through their grief. Other things you can do to help a child process their grief are: 

  • Talk about the person who died. Encourage your child to talk about the person they lost and assure your child that it's okay to be sad while you talk about them. This is what happens when we love and miss people. Share your own feelings with them and include them in conversations about how you're processing your grief as well. 

  • Include children in grief rituals. The funeral, the wake, candlelight vigils — just like these grief rituals help us process our own grief, they can be helpful to kids in processing their grief. Just make sure to prepare them for what to expect and explain everything that's going to happen beforehand so there are no surprises. 

  • Try to return to structure and routine. Kids feel security in getting back to normal processes and routines, but they may still go in and out of grief. So it's perfectly normal that one day your child is excited to go to school and the next they're refusing to go. Activities that help kids express themselves, like physical activity, art or music, can be especially helpful in processing their emotions during this time.  

It's important to keep in mind that everyone processes their emotions differently and grief can look very different for kids based on their personality. As you can, give your child what they need. It's okay to take it a little easy and allow behaviors that you normally wouldn't for a little while. 

However, if after about six months, your child doesn't return to somewhat normal functioning or if they're still experiencing pretty significant nightmares, depression, anxiety, school refusal or risky behavior, it could be a good time to reach out to your child's pediatrician to speak with a behavioral health consultant for more support. 

Children's Wisconsin also offers a variety of grief services for both staff and families from counseling and support groups to workshops and camps. More information can be found online or by contacting the grief services team at (414) 337-4250 or