Explaining death to a child isn't easy

Psychologist, psychotherapist and ParenTeen Coach Bharti Rakheja tells how to deal with these questions without making it a big deal for the child.

What is death? What happens to us after death? What is life after death? These questions kept haunting me for a very long time after my mother passed away. I felt a void that refused to fill. There were no answers and the questions stayed on with me.


In my profession as a psychologist, I have helped several clients with anxiety issues that multiply or trigger with anyone’s death as they relate it to a fear that my parents/ siblings/ relatives would also die soon. 

Death is still a very abstract concept and difficult to understand and accept to most of us. Kids are no different. Death perplexes them no end, whether it happens in reality or on TV or in a movie. One question that every child asks at least once in childhood is about death. 


Where has grandpa gone? What happened to grandma? Will you also die one day? When will I die? Will you die when you grow old? And many more such queries…

The bigger question is, how do we deal with these questions without making it a big deal for the child.

So when your child comes to you curious about death and asks you questions related to it, you should not: 

  • Snap at the child when he asks will I also die? 
  • Avoid strong reactions overwhelmed with emotions. Do not leave your child’s questions unanswered else they’ll keep haunting the child and lead to discomfort.
  • Do not say I don’t know.


It is important to understand the child’s curiosity and respond normally ‘as a matter of fact’ types. So ideally, when the child asks you such a question come down on your knees, connect with the child on eye level and give correct answers.


1. Use the word death clearly: Most of the times we use the phrases “passed away” and “no more” in place of dead. Be specific here as the child’s vocabulary is not yet developed to understand the phrases.


2. Do not give vague replies: Grandpa has gone into a deep sleep. Or grandma is resting in peace. Or she has become a star in the sky and so on as the child will continue to fantasise about the departed one. It sounds dreamy when we use words like heaven, better world or God’s home. For the child, death may be abstract but using the correct term prepares him to understand it in forthcoming years.


3. Use short, specific and clear sentences: Long sentences make it complicated for the child. Like, the body stops working, and the soul goes into the sky and will take a rebirth, etc., as per the beliefs. The child will understand as he grows up. 


4. Give it time: The concept of death is so abstract to adults; it would be immature to expect a child to understand in just one or two explanations. Don’t get overwhelmed if she asks the same question more than five times. Always respond patiently. 


5. Be supportive: Sometimes, untimely death leaves behind grief, anger and guilt in the family members. Share more emotional support and understanding with the child and help your child overcome any negative emotions, for which the caregiver first has to be strong enough. 


6. Do not overreact: Sometimes the child may get stuck, that I also want to die and go where she has gone, and such other things. Try and instill positive thoughts and talk about how beautiful life is. 


Untimely and unnatural deaths may sometimes leave the family members into trauma. If you can’t overcome the grief in the recommended time or your pain doesn’t lessen in intensity, consider speaking to a therapist to manage it better.


(The author can be reached out for personal queries at + 91 9811129297); Image from Pixabay.


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