Explaining Death to Children

Kieran and I created this burial site for Coco the Goldfish.

This past November, Coco the Goldfish passed away after five long years of living in the Ota household. I got Coco in January of 2005 as “decoration” for an open house that we had at work. (It was an Asian theme, and we placed goldfish in bowls all around the office.) Everyone kept one, and eventually, each fish had died, except Coco. When I left, Coco came with me (after being babysat by Jaime while I was on maternity leave), and had been a part of our life ever since. Let me explain that further–for my five year old son Kieran, Coco had been there his entire life. Which brings me back to the beginning–Coco died in November and my husband and I were not prepared for the grief that Kieran felt. Endless crying, constantly asking questions about what happened to Coco now, telling everyone he encountered that Coco died–the guy was clearly affected. Today, he’s okay. However, if Kieran experienced this type of grief with his fish, I am afraid to see what will happen when his good friend Maddie will no longer be with us. This time, I want to be prepared in explaining what happened. So, Breezy Mama went to expert Russell P. Friedman, Executive Director of The Grief Recovery Institute Educational Foundation, Inc. and co-author of THE GRIEF RECOVERY HANDBOOK for help on how to explain death to children.

From Russell P. Friedman:

We [The Grief Recovery Institute Educational Foundation, Inc.] are co-authors of When Children Grieve, which bears the sub-title, “For Adults to Help Children deal with Death, Divorce, Pet Loss, Moving and Other Losses.” It is not actually a book for children, but for anyone who has a custodial relationship with children.

As a generality, children fall into three broad categories when it comes to dealing with death. Up until age 5,  or  6, and in some cases slightly older, most children do not understand that death is a permanent condition. While young children can memorize words and ideas and say them back, that doesn’t mean that they truly comprehend what they’re saying. And young children tend to be very literal. It is not uncommon for a child at a burial to want to put a blanket in the casket for grandma because she might get cold. Starting somewhere between 6 and 7, children begin to understand that death is forever.

From age 5-6 until about age 12 or 13, death may be perceived as real, but remote, as in it won’t happen to me.

And after 12- or 13, both the reality of death, and the inevitability of it, starts to sink in.

It’s important to know that, because it explains why in one of our answers we suggest that it’s not always a good idea to put all your children – of different ages – together when talking about a death.

Breezy Mama: A pet dying is much different than a loved one dying—how do you respond to each one?

We don’t actually agree with that premise. First, we NEVER compare losses. And, in either case, the child’s emotions will be affected. It might be intellectually accurate to say that the death of a person is different than the death of a beloved pet, but it is far from accurate emotionally. Therefore when we help anyone, adult or child, we address their emotional relationship with the animal or person who died. Many children have a powerful, almost unconditionally loving relationship with a pet who is part of their life every day for years. On the other hand, a child may have a minimal relationship with a grandparent who lives far away, and who she only sees once or twice a year; and who wasn’t very nice to the child. With those realities, it’s easy to see that the death of the pet is liable to have much greater emotional impact on the child than the death of the grandparent.

To help understand this at a little more depth, let us give our definition of grief. “Grief is the conflicting feelings caused by the end or change in a familiar pattern of behavior.” I have put the last part of that phrase in italics to highlight that it is the ending or change in the familiar that causes the emotions of grief. In the above example, the child’s constant loving relationship with the dog indicates that the child will probably be devastated by that death. However, the death of the grandparent that the child rarely saw, barely knew, and didn’t like, is not liable to create a mass of emotion for that child.

Should we give a child the “straight up facts” when talking about death?

We always suggest that parents tell the truth to their children. But, the level of detail about facts depends on the age and maturity of the child. That’s why it isn’t always a good idea to lump different age children together when talking about the death of someone they knew, and who may have been important to them. We also believe that if a child can formulate a question, they deserve an answer – with age appropriate language and concepts. What we are absolutely against is lying to your children. Remember, since you teach them to tell the truth, you have to do the same. Eventually they will find out if you lied to them, and it will be a real problem. We can’t tell you how many people who’ve attend out Grief Recovery Seminars have been carrying some very heavy emotional baggage based on their parents’ lying to them. Lying to your children can create a massive “loss of trust.”

When our pet fish died, we buried him, and then my son kept asking what was happening to the fish—he wanted a concrete answer. How should I have answered this? Saying his skin was decomposing seemed to gruesome.

Yes, saying his skin was decomposing – while accurate – might sound gruesome, and many children won’t even understand the word decompose. Better to use something from nature to demonstrate. The classic metaphor is leaves that have fallen to the ground. Again age, maturity, and personal inclination will dictate if your child needs and wants more graphic detail. And at that point, if they can phrase a question, they deserve an answer. In a way, the parent leads by telling the truth, and then follows by letting the child ask more if they want.

My son has asked if we could dig the fish back-up—he wants to see his bones. Should I let him?

Our response may surprise you: Your son might be a brilliant, budding scientist. Some children are very curious about the physical world, and it’s a good idea to encourage a child’s interests. Digging up a fish might be a good project for your child. However, digging up a hamster you might have buried in you back yard might be different. The decision on that again would relate to age, maturity, level of scientific interest, etc. If your child seems truly inclined that way, maybe you could arrange for trip to your local vet who might be willing to sit with you and your child and go through some animal anatomy books and pictures.

If a child’s friend is dying from disease, how should this be explained?

Again, age and maturity of each individual child is the key to the explanation the parent gives. With very young children for example, we caution parents from saying, “She got sick and died.” Young children are very literal, so after hearing that, anytime the child is sick, he/she will be afraid they will die. And, again, the age of your child will dictate the degree to which they even understand death. That all said, the most important thing for the parent to keep in mind when confronted with having to explain that their child’s friend is dying, is for the parent to be emotionally honest. That means “tell the truth about yourself.” Don’t cover up your feelings and try to be strong for your child. If you do that, you will not only be confusing your child, you’ll be teaching him/her to lie about how they feel. The fact is that if your child’s friend is dying, you ARE emotionally affected. You probably know the child. You probably know the child’s parents. And even if you don’t, as a parent yourself, you can’t begin to imagine what it might be like for the other parents. That is enough to make you very emotional. When you sit down with your child to tell them, start with the truth. “I am having a very hard time. I’ve found out that your friend Tammy has a very serious condition, and… Here’s where you have to fill in details that relate to the condition and the prognosis and that relate to your child’s ability to understand. One thing we’d like to hammer home for you is this – we’d prefer that your children get the news, directly and accurately, from you, rather than from other kids, who may distort the facts. Also by you explaining it, you get to field questions and deal with the possible emotions your child has as you explain. Please let it be okay with you if you have some emotion and some tears as you explain this sad situation. By demonstrating your feelings you make it safe for your child to follow suit. You want your children to have access to and ability to communicate their sad feelings as well as their joy. You will set the tone. We want you to go first because you are the leader.

How do we respond when the child asks, “Will that happen to me?” (the child wants to know if they will get cancer, brain tumor, etc)

Since we suggested telling the truth in our last answer, we’ll stick with that theme. The obvious and honest answer to that question is, “We don’t know, but we certainly hope that nothing bad ever happens to you, and we will do everything we can to make sure we all stay healthy.” This is a situation where each individual child, based on who he or she is, may ask more questions, or even get very scared of something happening to him or her or to their parents or siblings. Here’s the most important tip on this issue: If your child gets scared or sad, don’t tell them not to feel that way. It’s totally normal and natural to feel scared or sad when you hear of something bad happening to someone – especially one of your peers. And, you are well-advised to say “Me too, I got scared when I heard what was going on with Timmy.”

What do we do when a child is constantly crying and saying they miss the pet/person that has passed away? What are the right words to say?

First we would recommend that the parents use the words death or died, and not euphemisms, liked “passed away” or we “lost” grandma. It’s very confusing for children, and the attempt to soften the blow by not using the correct words, can create huge problems for the child later – even in adulthood.

As to what to say: Always paraphrase the child’s feeling, as in, “I can see that you really miss Fido or Grandma.” Or, “I can see you feel sad.” And then add your truth. “I miss him or her too.“ It is the most normal and natural thing in the world to be sad and to miss someone who’s no longer here. What you need to do is normalize that which is normal. For children, a pet or a grandparent, was probably “always there” as far back as they can remember. Please don’t make your child feel bad that they feel bad or sad. And there are no time limits on that. But we can tell you that the more you paraphrase the feelings and tell the truth about your own feelings, the more effectively your child will adapt to the new, unwanted reality caused by the death. As they adapt, the constant crying and missing usually diminish.

When a child asks will we ever see him/her again, what is the best thing to say? What if a family isn’t religious? What are their options?

Here is how we answer that question on pages 232/233 in our book, When Children Grieve: “When it comes to beliefs about heaven and afterlife, there are many different perceptions. Some people perceive heaven in a very literal sense with people in flowing white robes, surrounded by beautiful, idyllic scenery. Others have a more metaphorical image. Still others have no belief in heaven, in any form, and believe that death signals the end of a being altogether. It is up to you to decide how much of what you believe you communicate to your child. Whatever you decide, be very clear about telling your children about death.” We can’t tell you the best thing to say about ever seeing someone again, because your personal beliefs about actually seeing someone again – or not –  will dictate what you tell your child. We also make this statement in the book: “Giving children accurate information about the reality of death does not interfere with the development of religious or spiritual beliefs about heaven and afterlife.”

Most people explain someone who has died is in heaven. A child may ask, “What happens to them now?” How should this be explained?

Let us put these questions together and again answer them with an exact passages from page 232 in our book, When Children Grieve: “In response to your children’s questions, ‘Where’s Grandma?’ or ‘What Happened to Grandma?’ try this: ‘Grandma has died. We believe that after someone has died, he or she goes to heaven.’ The key phrase, which must be the FIRST phrase, is ‘Grandma has died.’ It MUST be the first phrase because if you start with ‘Grandma went to heaven,’ your child will hear that and want to go there, and you may have a hard time saying, ‘But Grandma is dead, you can’t go there now.’ Remember that little ones are completely literal.”

Can you recommend some good children’s books to read on the subject of death?

You will need to screen any books that are recommended to you for age appropriateness and for the fact that many books on this subject have a religious or spiritual point of view that may not represent your family’s beliefs. Here’s a resource that lists many of the better known books on the subject. http://www.best-childrens-books.com/childrens-books-about-death.html

About Russell: Russell P. Friedman is Executive Director of The Grief Recovery Institute Educational Foundation, Inc. [www.grief.net], and co-author of THE GRIEF RECOVERY HANDBOOK – 20th Anniversary Expanded Edition – The Action Program For Moving Beyond Death, Divorce, and Other Losses, including Health, Career, and Faith – [HarperCollins, 2009]. He is also co-author of WHEN CHILDREN GRIEVE – For Adults to Help Children Deal with Death, Divorce, Pet Loss, Moving, and Other Losses – [HarperCollins, 2001]; and MOVING ON – Dump Your Relationship Baggage and Make Room For the Love of Your Life [M. Evans, September, 2006].  (To order Russell’s books, click on their titles above.)

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  1. Well written, Al. Thanks for the advice on this inevitable topic. Unfortunately, this article will be a helpful resource for so many of your readers.

  2. My 3 year old twins great grandmother passed away right before holidays and she had lived seven doors down with my mother-in-law. My kids kept asking where great-grandma went. We tried to keep it as light hearted as possible and told them that she went to help the angels in heaven. My daughter thought this was a cool because grandma was magically turned into a pretty princess angel. Shortly after her death our son actually started sleeping through the night would wake up in the morning and explain that great grandma keep the monster’s away in the middle of the night with her magic whistle! Since my kids seemed to be okay with grandma being in heaven I told them it was time to send their beloved pacifiers to grandma so that she could give them to babies who needed them. I had bought a bunch of helium balloons and we tied the pacifiers to them and away they went up up un the sky!

  3. When my son was four our dog passed away. Friends of ours had just gone through the same thing with their four year old a few months earlier. That evening they left two books on our doorstep with flowers and a stuffed animal..dog ofcourse, for my son. One book was written by Mr. Rogers and the other was called Dog Heaven. It was such a beautiful book with a wonderful story which actually made me feel better. Since then we’ve passed those books on to a family that lost their dog about six months ago. I highly recommend Dog Heaven. The story is beautifully written and made our family feel a little better about Toby’s passing.

  4. Sasha–My awesome friend Alison rewrote Dog Heaven as “Fish Heaven” for Kieran when he was grieving for Coco. It is a beautiful story.

    Kelly, I love that you put the pacis onto a helium balloon! Genius!

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