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Death happens to everyone, yet it is still considered a ‘taboo’ topic to talk about. In particular, there is a general misconception adults have when discussing death with their children.

They either think that children don’t understand death or it’s harmful to discuss death with them and that children should be shielded from this concept. Although this mindset comes from a good place, it goes against the natural resilience that children have.

Surprisingly only 24% of people feel comfortable talking about death, dying or loss with a child, according to the Beyond Taboos report . However, statistics show that 43% of people have experienced the death of someone close to them under the age of 16 , emphasising how important it is to have the conversation.

“If discussions about death with children are avoided, it sends the message that death should be feared instead of being a part of life,” says Kerrie Noonan, Clinical Psychologist and Director of The GroundSwell Project.

“It is crucial for parents and guardians to be informed and able to talk about death with their kids. It is all about trust and honesty – parents make sure children can come to them to talk about anything. The topic of death is no different than talking about sex, bullying and mental health,” says Kerrie.

“In Australia, ‘death literacy’ is not a well-established concept yet, however it should be. Death literacy is the practical know-how needed to plan well for end-of-life.

It encompasses learning through experiences, skills, knowledge and taking action. If adults, particularly parents are educated in this area, not only will it strengthen the relationship with their children, but also the communities’ capacity to take action and care for one another at times of dying, death, loss and grief,” says Kerrie.

Kerrie shares the top five tips parents and guardians should implement when it comes to talking to children about death.

1. Don’t compare death to sleeping
“Never compare death to sleeping – avoid phrases such as ‘grandma has gone to sleep’. It can be very confusing and scary! It can also make children afraid of falling asleep. After all, sleeping is something people who are alive do.”

2. The significance of inclusion
“There is no ‘best age’ to talk about death. The best time to talk about it is when it happens. It is through experience that people learn best, so include children in hospital visits and in dying rituals, especially if someone the child is close to is expected to die. This gives them a warning and sufficient time to come to terms with it. You can include children by giving them a small job to complete. In these situations, it is ideal to have something to do to feel helpful when you or the child might be feeling helpless.”

3. Use plain language
“When it comes to learning and understanding, young children often tell adults their preference is for us to use simple words and phrases. When it comes to discussing death, use plain language such as dead, died, their heart stopped and coffin. An example to say is ‘his heart stopped beating and then his body stopped working and he died’. This method also applies when answering questions. Respond in a factual and straightforward way.”

4. Teachable moments
“Utilise opportunities and teachable moments when they arise. They are a natural segue to start a conversation about death. For example, don’t flush the goldfish or quickly replace pets that die. Children learn a great deal from pet funerals and about grief. It also helps parents and adults build their skills in discussing death with children.”

5. Be honest and give children space
“There is no need to rush children when it comes to talking about death or the grieving process. Grief usually comes in short intense bursts. Children tend to grieve differently to adults and conversations may take place over several days, weeks or months as they become more curious. Go at their pace and always be honest and upfront with them. Don’t make up false information or missing facts if you don’t know, as those can be more damaging than the actual truth. The best way is to tell them you are unsure and will find out more details for them. ”

Share your comments below

  • Agree death is hard for adults to talk to kids about – but also agree it’s so crucial. It’s us adults that feel uncomfortable & also don’t want to hurt our kids more. But from a recent family death, I found being straight, simple & honest worked best. Kids tend to cope better than us, once they are told & explained that *** has died which means their body stopped working & u can’t see him or talk to him in person anymore but he’s always in ur heart & u can always talk to him and he hears it in heaven. We also released balloons so the younger kids I say u can talk to him and it goes up to the sky like balloons did.

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  • My niece’s Uncle died when she was about 2 1/2 years old. (he was in his 20s and unexpected) My niece asked her Grandma why he had to die. Having never been in that situation before my Mum was struggling for an answer that the little one would understand. Part of it was that everybody and everything dies eventually – like the flowers that she had to trim off bushes in the garden. Missy lived being in the garden with Grandma. She left it for the parents to do the rest of the explanation.

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  • I totally agree, I had never had anyone close to me die intolerant I was 16 and friends were 16 it was so traumatic. I grew up on s farm so I knew about death of animals but it was a shock looking at coffins and I could not feel it was real that my friends were in those coffins. Three funerals in one day was so awful and only other friends to share with, my parents water I think unaware of how this traumatised me. Because they did not know them or the families well it was as if it did not matter.

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  • In my experience I have found adults are more emotional about death than children. but it is really good to talk about it openly as everyone dies and at some point in their life they will experience someone close to them passing away.

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  • Great advice I’ve always thought it was scary to associate sleeping and dying for kids.

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  • Never a pleasant subject to discuss and explaining to children is complicated. Our kids know about heaven and that when you go there you can’t see or speak to that person anymore, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still think about them and love them.

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  • Good points, always be honest and upfront with the kids.

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  • some really great points made and something i will remember should i ever need to discuss this with my daughter

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  • My 4 year old often asks about death. It is a hard topic to discuss but we try our best.

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  • When my father died, my children were 6, 5 and 1. We talked to them about what happened, honestly. The eldest go to catholic school so we talked about heaven and that their grandfather will not be around any more. They understood quite well. And also understood that I was grieving and sad at times and that was OK to feel like that. We still talk about him and after watching movies like Coco and the Book of Life, they have decided that they want to try remembering him in the same respects and celebrate ” The day of the Dead”. I think it is a lovely idea.

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  • I’ve always felt this is the right tack to take and have spoken to my eldest and explained death as simply and as honestly as I could. As a child I grew up deathly afraid of death and even now it gives me chills even though I understand it as an adult. Teaching death as a part of life makes acceptance easier.

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  • Our older children growing up in a rural area knew about death due to animals. They still wanted to bury the dead , just had to understand that burials are done in special places. My younger ones have not had a problem with this as we have explained in language they understand. All my children go to talk to the person at the grave or stone put up, they know that they can talk to the person and this helps.

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  • It is hard for me as an adult to understand, to then explain it to my children…

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  • Very interesting story that needs to be told to help parents or careers have a better understanding on how to explain a most important thing on life’s journey.

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  • I wouldn’t say it’s a comfortable conversation, but I don’t avoid it.

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