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Talking to children about death

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By Fiona Reid
Talking to children about death

CHILDHOOD bereavement charity, Winston’s Wish has shared ways to talk to children about the death of Queen Elizabeth.   

As the country goes into mourning, they have offered tips on how to explain current events, and national mourning, to your children.

They say: “Children are inquisitive individuals and love to ask questions and really understand what is going on and for some children this may be the first time they hear the words ‘death’ or ‘died’. They may hear things on the radio and television, in schools or across their social media channels which could prompt a lot of questions and curiosity from children, wanting to know what it all means. Unfortunately, for some children they will have already experienced a bereavement and this significant event could bring up their own difficult feelings.”

  • Use clear, age-appropriate language: Although it’s tempting to use terms like ‘gone to sleep’, ‘passed away’ or ‘lost’, this can be confusing to children who often take things literally. If she’s gone to sleep, why can’t we wake her up? If she’s lost, why can’t we find her? Although they feel harsh and blunt, and as adults we can shy away from them, using words like ‘dead’, ‘died’ and ‘death’ helps to create a clear definition for children.
  • Explain what death is using concepts they understand: This could be a child’s first experience of death and, if they are younger, they might not fully understand the concept of death. This can be confusing and frightening for them. This is a clear way to explain death: When someone dies, their body has stopped working and they can’t be brought back to life. They are no longer able to do the things they could when they were alive, such as move or talk. When someone dies, their heart stops beating, they stop breathing, their brain stops thinking. Sometimes it helps to start by talking about the concept of being alive. 
  • Reassure your child: Hearing about The Queen’s death might make children worried about people around them dying. If you can, offer them reassurance but without making impossible promises. Saying things like “we are healthy and we’re going to do all we can to keep that way because I want to do X in the future” Or if someone is seriously ill, you can still offer reassurance but being honest is important. An explanation such as “you know Dad is very ill at the moment and has an illness called X. The doctors are giving Dad special medicine and working very hard to make him better.”
  • Be honest: It’s better to be open, honest and direct when someone has died. Without clear information children tend to fill the gaps to try and make sense of what is happening. There will also be lots of information available to them elsewhere which they may start searching for– on TV, online, overhearing conversations and playground talk. This can mean that children imagine all sorts of things about a death, which are often worse than the reality.
  • Encourage questions and honest answers: A child may have a lot of questions about The Queen’s death, or it may prompt questions about death in general. It could be all at once or they may come back to you several hours or days later. Try to answer them honestly and if you don’t know the answer, let them know you will try to find out for them. By reassuring them that questions are ok, and you’ll do your best to answer it, they are learning to trust the responses you give.
  • Let them know their feelings are normal: Let the child know that their feelings – anger, sadness, guilt, worry, confusion and more – are all normal reactions to hearing that someone has died. They may not feel upset as they didn’t really have a connection to The Queen, and that’s ok. However, if they do feel upset, it’s important not to also honour their reaction and sadness, and allow them to explore their feelings.
  • Don’t be fearful of showing your own emotions: Children will look to adults around them to make sense of grief and try to understand how should react. It’s ok to explore feelings with children and give them permission to explore their feelings with you. For example, if they see you upset you could say ‘I’m sad because I am sad that The Queen has died’ or ‘I’m crying because The Queen’s death has made me think about when your Granny died’.

** If you know a child who has been bereaved or is impacted by The Queen’s death, Winston’s Wish provides support for grieving children, young people (up to 25) and adults supporting them. Call them on Freephone Helpline on 08088 020 021 (open 8am-8pm, Monday to Friday) or email [email protected]. For urgent support, the Winston’s Wish Crisis Messenger is available 24/7 for free, confidential support in a crisis. Text WW to 85258.

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