Explaining death and dying to your child | Patient Education | UC Davis Children's Hospital

How to explain death and dying to your child

Let’s talk about – conversations with children about death and dying (PDF) | Spanish (PDF)

This subject can be very hard to discuss with children, as it is sensitive and overwhelming for everyone involved. In the hospital there are Certified Child Life Specialists (CCLS) that can assist you in navigating these conversations. However, we are aware that these conversations may happen at home. The following will guide you when having this difficult conversation. Along the way, remember:

  • Always be open, honest and as concrete as possible.
  • These conversations are best started with story books and/or activities, but can also begin with a question (e.g., “Can you tell me why your [name of family member] needed to go to the hospital?”).
  • Always find out from the child what they know and understand about the situation first.
  • Encourage your child to ask questions to better help their understanding.
  • Know that it is okay if you do not have all of the answers. “I don’t know the answer to that question right now, but when I do I’ll let you know” is perfectly acceptable.
  • In effort to make the conversation as appropriate as possible, learn about how children typically understand death and dying at each developmental level (a Certified Child Life Specialist can provide this for you).
  • Allow your child to see your emotion; they will realize that sadness is a natural reaction to sorrow and loss, and may feel more comfortable sharing their feelings with you.
  • Make sure your child understands that the body has “stopped working” because of (fill in with clearly stated medical reason). Further explain by stating that the body is “no longer able to do the things it used to such as breathe, move, eat, see, hear, touch, taste, smell, grow, talk, play, think, and feel.” o Use concrete language, such as “die,” “dying,” and “dead” instead of euphemisms such as “went to sleep,” “went away,” or “we lost her/him.” Children think very literally, these phrases are unclear and can cause worry related to going to sleep, going away or getting lost. These phrases can also make it challenging for the child to understand the finality of the situation. 
  • Emphasize how the nurses and doctors tried everything possible to help their family member.
  • Ask for support. Utilize your support system, whether that is family, friends or hospital staff, to help you through this difficult time.