Try to Use the Words Dead, Died, and Dying

Toys hammering concrete and using construction vehicles

When helping to support a child who is grieving the death of a loved one, it may feel more kind to soften language and say that their loved one who has died “fell asleep and did not wake up,” “was really sick,” or that “we lost them.” I have found using concrete language – saying the words dead, died, and death – can help children process what happened.

A painting of a deer crying and a bunny trying to comfort them in front of a pond

Here is how gentle language can result in difficulties for children.

Children are often concrete thinkers.

When you say their loved one “fell asleep and did not wake up” they may become fearful of sleeping and of others sleeping.

When you say their loved one “was really sick” rather than explaining what the illness was in child appropriate language, they may become fearful when themselves or others become ill.

When you say that “we lost them,” they may become panicked if even briefly they or someone else gets lost as their loved one never returned.

Illustration of two dogs talking by the river  with a mountain in the background and a cabin

Instead you might say their loved one died in their sleep because the had a long standing health issue which was (name of the specific health issue).

You might say their loved one was really sick with (name the specific illness).

You might say that their loved one died.

Then you can ask them if they have any questions about what you just told them.

When we do not give the answers to questions that children have, they will guess to try to fill in the gaps and this can lead to more anxiety. Whenever possible, try to use concrete and developmentally appropriate language.

Let them know that you are here to answer whatever questions they may have.

What if the death was due to a drug overdoes or suicide?

This is a question I often get asked, “Is my child too young to hear about that?” or “Will this increase the likelihood that they may become suicidal one day?” One of the risk factors for suicide is if there has been a suicide in your family system. That is only one of many risk factors. I understand your concerns. You know your child best. Follow your intuition on what is best for your family.

I sometimes suggest, depending on the family, to talk about how their loved one who died was struggling with mental health and was not able, for whatever the reason may be, to get the help they needed to survive. Which is why it is so important for us to talk about where we are at with our mental health and get support. If your child is struggling with mental health already then first please get them connected with support for that.

There are often free supports through local hospices or family support services. If you are in British Columbia and would like to find the nearest grief support services to you, connect with the BC Bereavement Helpline. If you are looking for a family services program near you call 8-1-1 to locate services in your area or visit HealthLink BC.

Illustration of Ann the Artic Fox facilitating a grief support group

Or if you have benefits, funding, or can afford to do so, then there are private practice clinicians that can provide an extra layer of support. Here are a couple directories to look for the support that will fit best for your family if you live in British Columbia: BC Play Therapy Association and BC Association of Clinical Counsellors.

Supporting Children with Grief and Loss