Talking to very young children about death and dying is difficult when your natural instinct might be to protect them from such information. Adults often try to soften the information by using words and phrases like ‘lost’, ‘gone to sleep’, ‘gone’, ‘passed’, ‘become a star’, all of which can add to the young child’s confusion.
Children under five understand their world in concrete terms therefore phrases like these are not helpful to young children and can be very confusing. Instead give clear, honest explanations using clear language and in small pieces like a simple jigsaw puzzle.
When breaking news to children that someone important has died, you may want to:
- begin by saying, “I have something very sad to tell you…”
- find a quiet and comfortable place to break the news, somewhere where you will not be disturbed
- allow unhurried time for the child to respond and ask any questions
- simply tell the child that the person has died. This may be enough at first
- follow the child’s lead for more information – if they ask a question they are probably ready for the answer, so reply to the question but avoid giving too much information or detail
- be prepared to follow this up later with further explanations or repetition of the information you have already given
When explaining what death means, you may want to consider explaining that:
- when someone dies their body stops working
- they don’t feel anything any more like pain, heat or cold
- they don’t need to eat or drink anything
- their body is a bit like an empty shell
- all that made the person so very special, like their smile, the little things they did and said, are what we remember, and these things will stay with us forever