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How should we talk to children about death?

18 NOVEMBER 2019

Catherine Toohey, Head of Family Link and Therapies at Noah’s Ark Children’s Hospice, discusses the right and wrong ways to talk to children about bereavement.

Brits struggle to talk about death. A 2015 survey by the Dying Matters Coalition found that nearly three-quarters of us believe that our fellow Britons are uncomfortable discussing bereavement. But we know that the right words can have immense power throughout the bereavement process.

Going to a better place

Mainstream society often uses terrible euphemisms to describe dying. Someone has “passed on” or “passed away”  - like second-hand clothing. We’ve “lost someone”  - will we find them later? And, the one that really bothers me, they’ve “gone to a better place”  - as if death and the seaside are somehow placed on a par!  

Supporting young people, in particular, facing bereavement needs care, thought and great tact.

Using the right words

When speaking to a young person who has faced bereavement, the greatest challenge is how to actively listen to them. It’s something that even those who are highly experienced at communicating with children, such as teachers, need to keep at the front of their mind. ‘Active listening’ means being led by the person who you are speaking to rather than thinking about what you’re going to say next. It means acknowledging their situation and, most importantly, it means that when you do talk, trying to find the right words.

There is no ‘right way’ to respond and therefore finding the ‘right words’ is hard, but there are ways to avoid the wrong words, for example by avoiding unhelpful comments such as ‘I know how you feel’ or ‘they’ve gone to a better place’.

People are understandably concerned about saying the wrong thing, which can stop them reaching out to a bereaved person. But it’s so often just the being there, being present, that is the most important thing to do.

Supporting Young People Facing Bereavement Training 

Noah's Ark and North London Hospice are running a training course in March 2020 on talking to children about bereavement. Click here to find out more or attend bereavement training. 


Read more about talking openly about dying, death and bereavement in Why children need to talk about dying

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