Death as a Part of Life

Parent speaking to child about death

Here are some things to keep in mind when a death becomes part of a child's life.

The child experiencing the loss defines the type of hurt. The resources you can use will be similar in any death situation (sudden or chronic, a parent or a pet).

  • Reassure your child that he or she is safe and that you are safe. One death does not mean that death is imminent for anyone else.
  • Prepare yourself emotionally. Your strength, focus, and patience will be needed.
  • Understand your role. You are the child's support person, so if you don't know the answer to her question, say you don't know.
  • Expect emotion or lack thereof. Respect any reaction for its value to the individual. There may be more or less emotion than you expect, or the timing of the emotion may surprise you.
  • Use your knowledge of the child and skills of observation to determine your next steps.
  • Listen to the child to discover what he or she knows and understands. More than anything else—listen, listen, listen.
  • Know the facts and the right words and terms. The child may ask you what happened, and you will need to answer honestly in words that the child will understand.
  • Be patient and available on the child's terms and timeline.
  • Remember, this isn't about you—although you may need support for yourself.
  • If the circumstances are sudden or tragic, focus on the happiness and goodness in the world—recognize that there is far more of it than there is not.

The book list provided will help you communicate with the child about death:

"When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death" by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown, explains in simple language the feelings people may have regarding the death of a loved one and the ways to honor the memory of someone who has died. This book has a simple glossary of words with easily understandable definitions.

"The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story of Life for All Ages" by Leo Buscaglia, Ph.D., touches children and adults alike, illustrating the delicate balance between life and death. This is a warm, thought-provoking story about how Freddie and his companion leaves change with the passing seasons and the coming of winter.

"Daddy's Promise" by Cindy Klein Cohen and John T. Heiney, is the story of a little boy's journey of discovery after the death of his father. Jesse is angry and filled with questions. Why did his daddy have to die? What happens when someone dies? Where do they go? His mother and a series of dreams where Jesse visits his father and learns about life, death, and life after death answer Jesse's questions.

In "Badger's Parting Gifts" by Susan Varley, Badger's friends are sad when their old friend dies. They treasure the memories he has left them by remembering all of his gifts and relating stories about Badger. By springtime, Badger's friends are beginning to heal.

"The Tenth Good Thing About Barney" by Judith Viorst. “My cat Barney died this Friday. I was very sad. My mother said we could have a funeral for him, and I should think of ten good things about Barney so I could tell them...” A small boy loved his cat, Barney, and can only think of nine good things. With his father's help, he discovers the tenth good thing and begins to understand about the cycle of life and coping with loss.

"Gentle Willow: A Story for Children About Dying" by Joyce C. Mills, Ph.D., was written for children who may not survive their illness. This story helps children deal with the death of friends, family members, or even pets. It is a loving and tender tale that addresses our feelings of sadness, love, disbelief, and anger. It provides children and those who read the story with them a "transformational" way to view death and dying. This profound story is ultimately one of joy and hope.

Parent speaking to child about death
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