How to talk to children about death.
Updated: Apr 25, 2022
Where has nana gone? When is she coming back?
Dr Kimberley Bennett (PsyD in Child, Adolescent and Educational Psychology)
Many of you reached out asking for my perspective on how to talk to children about death and loss.
My first tip is: Don't wait until someone they love dies.
Often I find parents, caregivers and educators avoid the topic of death with little ones because they worry about upsetting or scaring them. We tell children bugs are "sleeping," we replace dead goldfish in the hopes our children won't notice, we skip past sad scenes in movies... But these everyday encounters with death can be opportunities for our children to explore and begin to understand this abstract and confusing concept at a time when their important people aren't emotionally charged with grief. Talking about death as we encounter it in everyday life is really helpful for little ones, rather than shielding them from its realities until such time as they lose someone close to them and then trying to navigate the topic during a period when we, too, are grieving.
So how should we talk about death?
Use basic, factual terms like "death' and "dead" - these are less likely to cause children confusion than many of the euphemisms our culture has developed. Accept that children will ask questions about death, and often will ask the same question over and over again. Remember that if a child is old enough to ask a question then they are old enough to hear a developmentally appropriate response. Try to answer with an honest response using simple terms. If you are unsure how to answer in the moment just explain that you need to give their question some thought.
What if your child has experienced the death of someone very important to them?
I thought a helpful way to address this topic would be to collaborate with Sophie a registered children's therapist, therapeutic storyteller and an internationally recognised children's author to create a therapeutic story for you.
Sophie created a gorgeous story called "In Our Hearts" and we worked together to add my own little touches to support parents, caregivers and educators to navigate these tricky conversations with little ones.
In Our Hearts
Once upon a time there lived a very, very special Nana. She was warm and funny and kind and everyone loved her very much, especially her grandchildren, Jessie and Ben.
Nana loved to play and talk and sing and she especially loved to play and talk and sing with Jessie and Ben. She gave the best hugs that made them feel warm and happy inside and she was very, very proud to be their Nana.
But one day, something very sad happened. Nana was old and she got very poorly, so poorly that her body stopped working and she died. Everyone who knew her was very sad because they loved her so much.
Jessie and Ben didn’t understand what had happened and they wanted to see her again.
“Where has Nana gone? When is she coming back?” Jessie asked.
Mummy explained that they wouldn't see Nana again because when someone dies their body stops working and that means they can't do the same things they did when they were alive. Nana couldn’t come back, even though they really, really wanted her to. That’s why when someone dies we miss them so much.
“Does dying hurt?” asked Ben, feeling frightened.
“Nana was poorly before, but now she doesn’t feel any pain at all.”
Jessie was worried. “Will I die too mummy? Will you?”
Mummy gave Jessie a big hug. “All living things will die one day my love, but most of the time dying only happens when people are very old, or so poorly that the doctors can’t help them to get better. But we are young and our bodies are healthy, and I will do everything I can to make sure we stay safe and healthy and live for a very, very long time.”
That helped Jessie feel a little better. But where had Nana gone? She missed her already and wished she could come back.
“It’s OK to miss Nana and feel sad that she can’t come back, I feel that way too. We will choose a special place for her body to go, so we can visit that place and remember her. We won’t be able to see her when we go there, but we can think of her,” Mummy said.
“In fact, do you want to know a secret?” she asked them.
They nodded and moved closer as mummy put her hand on her heart and whispered,
“Can you feel that? That’s your heart beating. And even though we can’t see Nana anymore, we can still feel her love in our hearts.” Mummy explained.
“How?” they asked.
“Here, if you put your hand on your heart like this, take a deep breath and think of her, you’ll feel how much she loves you, and how much you love her too. Her love is still right there in your heart.”
They all put their hands on their hearts and took a big deep breath together. Jessie and Ben started to smile again as they felt Nana’s love in their hearts.
Now they could feel Nana in their hearts they knew that whenever they wanted to they could send her some love, or a big cuddle, or talk to her about their day. And when they did, it helped them feel a little better.
The grandchildren still missed their Nana but they were so happy they could still talk to her, and sing to her and send her love and cuddles. And when they closed their eyes and put their hands on their hearts, they could feel her sending her love right back to them too.
Sophie is passionate about creating and sharing stories to help to explain difficult topics to children in a way they can understand. Sophie is best known for her Stay Home Superheroes story, which was translated into 20 different languages and shared in over 50 countries, helping thousands of children across the world to cope during lockdown. You can find out more about Sophie and her work here: