How can I explain death to my child?

Published on November 14, 2019

Death is a difficult concept for adults to grasp, let alone children.  However, children as young as four can understand finality.  When children see adults grieving, they want to understand and will ask questions. Sudden death and tragedies can be more complicated as a child might worry that the people they love will suddenly die as well.  

Funerals and rituals can be confusing and scary to children.  Explaining what is happening and what will happen will help to ease this anxiety. Often, adults are nervous about including children in the discussion about death. Not explaining what is going on might scare and confuse them more.

Here are some pointers to help explain to your child what death is:

1. Use child-friendly language and avoid euphemisms

Children will not understand if you say grandma is resting now, or grandma has passed on.  Be clear and attune to what your child is feeling.  You can say something like, “I have some news that might make you sad.  Whatever you feel is ok, and we can talk about it. Grandma died today. She was sick for a long time. Now she isn’t suffering.”  Wait to see how your child reacts and respond to their emotions.  

2. Responding to your child’s emotions

Grief can be a confusing emotion where anger, sadness, happiness, guilt and any other feeling can come up.  There is not a wrong way to grieve. You can help your child to put words to their emotions. For example, “It is ok to feel sad and to cry.  You might see a lot of people cry over the next few days.” Or “Are you scared?” Let them grieve if they need to grieve. Children often cope through play.  One minute they might be crying, and the next they might be playing happily. Allow them this time to play as it will help them process what happened and is happening. Playing with your child will help to strengthen your attachment. 

3. Allow your child to attend the funeral, but don’t force them

Funerals can provide closure for young children.  If they are afraid and don’t want to go, don’t make them.  If there are rituals, explain them to your child so that they aren’t confused and anxious. 

4. Reassure them

Some children might be afraid that they will lose other people that they love.  Tell them that you will do everything you can to make sure that you are healthy. Reassure them that you will take care of them and that you will make sure that they are safe.  

5. Routine

Structure, predictability and routines help a child to feel safe.  If your child seems to be scared, enhance the bedtime routine. Some children will be afraid to sleep; their fear of death might look like a fear of monsters or kidnappers. Tuck them in at night, read them a story, add a scent that is calming, turn down the stimulation and ask them about their feelings.  Remind them that they are safe.  

6. Practice self-care and self-compassion

Grief can feel like your mind, and your body is slowing down.  Things might feel like more of a challenge than usual. Speak kindly to yourself and be patient with your own emotions.  Your mental health is essential for the caretaking of your little ones.  

7. Draw a picture or write a story about the deceased

You can ask your child what the deceased meant to them.  What is their personal story? What did they learn from this person or pet? What did they love about this person or pet?  Do they want to draw a picture or write a story about it? If they say no, don’t push them. They might be ok to play and not speak about it.

8. Take a break

Some children might need a break from the grief, so encouraging them to speak about it when they don’t want to might make them feel worse.  Make room for fun and distraction if necessary. 

If your child seems overly anxious, depressed, can’t be calmed down, isn’t sleeping or eating for long periods, seek professional help


If you would like to set up an appointment to talk through any emotional issues that your child might be feeling, please contact me on +852 2521 4668 or email You can book a private or Skype session.

Photo by eine limonade bitte on Unsplash

Category(s):Grief, Loss, Bereavement, Parenting

Written by:

Dr Monica Borschel

Registered Clinical Psychologist (HK)

Dr. Borschel specializes in Attachment, trauma and Loss. She is experienced in helping adults, teens, children, and families adjust to anxiety, trauma, abuse, divorce, separation, loss of a loved one, and loss of finance. This may include deciding what is in the best interest of the children during custody disputes, strengthening the relationship and communication between the parents and the children.

From Nov 2020 Dr. Borschel is only available for online consultations.

Dr. Borschel’s attachment-based therapy along with EMDR and Brainspotting enables her clients to find healing within themselves. In so doing, she can help her clients to overcome anxiety, trauma, neglect, emotional, verbal, physical abuse, and child abuse.

Furthermore, as an attachment specialist, she also helps individuals understand relationship patterns which prevent them from developing or maintaining healthy relationships. She is able to help reduce anxiety, insomnia, depression and promote confidence and self-esteem.

Dr. Borschel is originally from Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S.A. She graduated with her Masters in Clinical Psychology from Columbia University in New York City. She later moved to Hong Kong to pursue her doctorate at the University of Hong Kong in Social Work and Social Administration.

Registered Clinical Psychologist with The Hong Kong Society of Counseling and Psychology (HKSCP). Member of the American Psychological Association (APA), The British Psychological Society (BPS), and the Hong Kong Family Law Association (HKFLA).

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