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How Children Understand Death: What to Say When a Loved One Dies

sad child holding hand of parent at funeral sad child holding hand of parent at funeral

By: David J. Schonfeld, MD, FAAP & Arwa Nasir, MBBS, MSc, MPH, FAAP

Most kids will encounter death at some point in their early years. Whether they lose a family member, a friend, a neighbor or a beloved pet, children often experience deep feelings of grief and worry. Parents and other grownups close to them may be mourning, too. This makes it especially hard to offer the support children need to understand and cope with the death.

Here are suggestions that may be helpful if you’re caring for a child faced with the death of a loved one, based on their age and stage of development.

Ways a child’s life may change after losing a loved one

Your child’s reaction to a death that touches them personally will depend on many factors, starting with their age. As they mourn, kids may also face other challenges such as:

  • Lifestyle shifts. When a parent or sibling dies, a family’s finances and social connections can change in dramatic ways. Parents may have to work more or take time away from their jobs. There may be less time for family outings or playdates, for example.

  • New settings. The loss might prompt the family to seek a fresh start or relocation for financial reasons, leaving kids to find their way in a completely new community.

  • Weakened social links. Children may lose contact with people close to the person who died, since they may have been the one who kept these connections vibrant.

  • Loss of a source of affection and support. Someone who consistently offered hugs, gifts, special meals or words of encouragement will be dearly missed.

  • Changing routines. Grieving families may have less energy to devote to a child, making life feel less secure and predictable.

  • Sadness that doesn’t let go. Kids may feel bereft when their loved one’s birthday comes around or the anniversary of their death. Holidays may be especially hard, since memories of good times remind them of everything they’ve lost.

    Messages in the media, school and elsewhere often focus on celebrating with those we love during the holidays. This may serve as unwelcome reminders of loss. Father’s Day and Mother’s Day, for example, are often difficult after death of a parent.

Why your love and guidance matters for your grieving child

Grownups don’t have the power to shield children from all sources of pain. But as a parent or caregiver, your support can make a lasting difference for your child.

Just like adults, children need time to recover from serious losses such as death. Making it safe for them to express their feelings and take time to mourn their loved one will help.

For example, you can let your child know that crying can be a healthy release, as is talking with a trusted adult or journaling—and accepting help from others can ease their sadness.

Consider inviting your child to participate in a children’s bereavement support group or camp. There are programs are offered free of charge through the country. These can help children talk about their grief without worrying about upsetting their family members who are also grieving. They can also ease the isolation grieving children often feel, and help them learn coping strategies from peers and program leaders.

4 key points to help younger children understand death

Many adults consider death too frightening a topic to discuss with children. But studies show that when caring grownups offer kids a simple framework for understanding death, they can benefit.

Children under 5 years old may not grasp the full message, but parents can use age-appropriate language to introduce these 4 main concepts of death:

1. The person they lost is not coming back. Even though television and cartoon characters may die in one show and return the next week, death is irreversible. As much as a child might wish things could be different, death means their loved one will not return.

2. They are not suffering. Once people die, their body stops working permanently. They no longer feel physical pain, hunger, loneliness or any other difficult emotion.

3. Everything that lives will die someday. This includes people, pets and even the trees, flowers and wildlife around us.

When explaining this point, keep in mind that young children may ask, "Will you die too?" One possible answer: "I am healthy and doing everything I can to stay well; I expect to be with you for a very long time, but just like everything that is alive, I will eventually die. If you ever feel frightened about this, let’s talk about it."

4. Your child is not to blame. Explain the cause of death in simple and clear terms, without unnecessary details. Understanding the cause of death helps a child be less likely to think their loved one died because of something your child did, said or thought. It will also make it less likely that they will blame the person that died and be ashamed of the death.

Still, keep an eye out for guilt or shame. Also, reassure your child that their own grief will not make you (or anyone else) feel worse. They don’t have to hide how they feel.

More ways to support children at different ages and stages of growth

Babies and toddlers

Even though infants and toddlers may not understand death, they do sense the suffering of grownups around them. Taking care of yourself while you are grieving will help your child. Accepting help from friends, neighbors and family may give you more energy to keep daily routines going, which helps little ones feel safe and loved.

Try to offer your little one extra snuggles and attention. And if they have questions, keep your answers simple and direct. "Yes, I feel sad right now, but I know that our family and friends are here for me."


Kids this age typically see death as something temporary, especially since their favorite videos might show characters pop back to life seconds after they fall off a cliff or crash into a wall.

Because they think in literal terms, avoid using vague phrases such as, "Your grandparent has gone to sleep (or gone on a long journey)." This might make your child feel afraid to fall asleep or travel anywhere, fearing they might not return.

After explaining that the person died and what that means, consider saying something like, "We won’t see your grandmother anymore, and this means we’ll miss her." You can add that, even though their loved one is gone for good, their memories will last forever.

School-age children

Although most elementary schoolers will understand the concepts of death (children generally learn this concepts between 5-7 years of age on average), but still struggle to accept the harsh realities after a personal loss. Knowing something is different from accept it.

Offer simple, honest explanations that help them understand death as a natural outcome. Kids this age may need help finding words to express their own feelings, and with younger ones, you may need to answer the same questions many times.

Keep in mind that It’s more important to listen to your child than to have the "perfect" words to explain death. Watch for signs that they need extra hugs and attention, which might mean they’re afraid of losing you too. Physical closeness can help kids feel more secure.

Tweens and teens

As they grow into adolescence, kids view death in a more adult way. However, many will resist sharing their feelings about it.

Depending on how close they were with the person who died, teens may hide out in their rooms, refusing to eat or socialize with family and friends for a period of time. Some may experiment with drinking, drugs and other risky behaviors.

Although it’s not easy, try to show patience with your teen while modeling the need for healthy self-care. You might invite them to try healthy coping strategies on their own or with you.

Model ways to clear your mind and spirit with walks, workouts, music, journaling, making art or talks with good friends. Calming techniques such as yoga, meditation or deep breathing can be helpful, too.

Try to avoid these potentially unhelpful messages

Though these are all valid thoughts that may cross your mind, it’s best to avoid sharing them with a child who is dealing with a loved one’s death.

"I know you are hurting now, but you’ll feel better soon."

This might sound like a rejection of your child’s sorrow or a request for them to hide their emotions.

"At least …."

Adults may feel relieved that "at least our loved one is no longer in pain" or "at least other people survived the accident." However, these comparisons do not help children express or cope with their feelings.

"You need to be strong (or brave) now."

Avoid any suggestion that your child needs to hide their feelings to protect others.

"I know just how you feel."

Generally, we don’t know exactly how someone else feels unless we ask, which is more helpful to a child.

"You must be angry (or sad or hurt or lonely)."

This might put pressure on kids to feel a certain way or agree with you, even if these reactions don’t match their state of mind.

"I’ve been where you are now."

When adults share their own stories of loss, it shifts attention away from the child and their own experiences and feelings. It may also create comparisons between the child’s loss and those of the adult. This may suggest that the child needs to suppport the adult (if the adult’s loss was "worse"). Or, it may feel insulting if the adult’s example seems trivial in comparison.

Should children attend funerals?
Many grownups assume that funerals, wakes and other memorial services will be too overwhelming for children and teens. But as it turns out, kids who don’t attend services for a loved one may feel confused or resentful. Gathering to mourn a loved one helps people deal with loss—and children may wonder why they weren’t included.

Discuss what to expect

One approach is to invite your child to attend the funeral and ask how they might like to take part. Start by sharing a few details about what they can expect. For example, if there will be an open casket or rituals such as prayer or placing flowers near the loved one’s urn or coffin, you can describe how this might look (while making every step optional for your child).

Explain that some people may cry or show strong emotions, but others might smile or tell funny stories about the person who died. Let them know that a wide range of feelings is welcome and acceptable. If your child tends to feel shy with strangers, explore ways to manage any stress this might bring, including the pressure to hug or kiss adults they don’t know well.

Showcase special memories

Children may feel comforted by helping you pick out a floral arrangement, a picture or a special object (such as a collectible or piece of clothing) for display at the memorial. You can invite older kids to help with greeting visitors or asking them to sign the guest book.

Enlist support

Consider asking an adult that is close with your child but not personally grieving the death (such as a babysitter or neighbor) to help guide your child through the funeral or memorial activity.

This person can help ensure that your child participates only to the level your child wishes and help answer questions and explain things as they happen. If the person who died is very close to you, you may find it very difficult to provide this level of support to your child while you are grieving yourself.

Does your child need professional help to recover after their loss?

Grieving the death of a loved one can affect your child’s health. As time passes, keep an eye out for major shifts in the way they feel and act. Though there’s no time limit on mourning and no one "right way" to heal, talk with your child’s doctor if they have persistent trouble, such as:

  • Getting enough sleep or waking up in time for school, sports and other activities

  • Handling homework, practices, chores and other daily duties

  • Getting enough to eat (or stopping when they’re full)

  • Spending time with family and friends or attending social events

  • Handling basic self-care (tooth brushing, showers, changing clothes or taking medication)

Call your pediatrician if you notice (or believe) that your child:

  • Uses drugs, alcohol and other substances to cope

  • Takes more risks than usual (engaging in risky sexual activities, unsafe driving, etc.)

  • Feels angry or gets into fights with family, friends or classmates

  • Shows signs of depression or anxiety that don’t ease over time

  • Engages in cutting or other forms of self-harm

  • Talks about suicide or expresses a plan to end their life

If these behaviors suggest an immediate risk (such as a risk of suicide), call your pediatrician right away or seek emergency evaluation.

Remember that these symptoms of loss do not mean you have failed your child. After someone close to them dies, kids must make their own way toward healing and acceptance. Setbacks will happen, but supporting your child without judgment or stigma can help them feel better, one day at a time.

Emergency help for kids at risk of suicide

Dial 988 to reach local suicide prevention services for your child or teen. This 24/7 lifeline offers help via phone, text or chat in English or Spanish. Learn more at

More information

About Dr. Schonfeld

David Schonfeld, MD, FAAPDavid Schonfeld, MD, FAAP, is an Executive Committee member of the AAP Council on Children and Disasters and a member of the Section on Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. He also serves as Director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, and Professor of Clinical Pediatrics, Keck School of Medicine of USC.

About Dr. Nasir

Arwa Nasir, MBBS, MSc, MPH. FAAPArwa Nasir, MBBS, MSc, MPH. FAAP, is a Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and Chair of the AAP Committee on the Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health.

Last Updated
American Academy of Pediatrics (Copyright @ 2024)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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