How to Explain Death to Youth

How to… Explain Death to Youth

Strategies for Youth has been asked by several officers for advice on talking to youth about death. Many officers deal with death routinely and are faced with the impossible task of breaking the news to youth that their siblings, cousins, friends, and parents are dead.

What’s the best way to do it? Should you be direct? Should you use euphemisms? Officers asked for the words to say it  in a way that is developmentally appropriate.

Strategies for Youth spoke with psychologists, psychiatrists and police trainers from around the country and developed the below chart to help officers consider what to say and how to say it depending on the youth’s age. Strategies for Youth invites you to print out and share this chart, and to send us any approaches you have found effective in your work.

Age-Appropriate Ways to Explain Death to Youth

  Psychological/Developmental Considerations Perception of Death Example of Words to Use
Toddler Importance of parent-child bonding
Need to be as close physically as feasible
Opportunity to express independence
Need for consistency in daily routine
Reassurance of future expectations
Fear of separations
Don’t understand death is permanent
Allow toddler to see how family grieves:
“Tim will not be seeing you anymore. He is dead and it’s okay to feel lots of different things. It’s okay to talk about what you are feeling, too.”
Preschool Need to prepare for separation
Offer appropriate support and clarification
Continuation of normal patterns for daily living
Contact with security object
Allow child to play
Give as many choices as practical but not outside of what would have happened prior to death
Take cues from child
Often see death as violent
Don’t always see death as permanent
Death is a punishment for being bad
Death is confused with separation and sleep
Believe their thoughts/actions can cause someone to die
“Sara won’t be coming back.”
Talk openly, honestly, and clearly
Use words such as “dead” and “died”
Explain death without using figurative expressions, such as “he has gone to heaven”
[Be sensitive to whether this is a faith-based family.]
School-Age Needs honest explanation
Fear of loss of control
More detailed explanation but at a pace the child sets- provide clear, simple, direct answers to questions
Just because they are not asking it doesn’t mean that they aren’t thinking it, but also is not sign that they need to be told
If a parent/caregiver doesn’t know the answer it is okay to say “I don’t know but will find out”
Need for parental involvement
Still need to maintain same schedule and rules; stress importance of keeping as much normalcy as possible
Begin to understand the finality of death
Death becomes more real, final, universal, and inevitable
Differentiation of living and non-living
Death is frightening and painful
Begin to understand and feel that others are sad and that there is a gradient to who is sad
“Jack is dead.”
“John’s body stopped working.”
“It’s okay to have lots of different feelings and to want to ask questions.It’s also okay if you don’t want to talk about it.”
Adolescence Begins to deal with issues of illness/injury
Relies less on family support
Illness/injury may impair ability to plan future
Need for privacy
Detailed explanation
Need for peers
Participation in decision-making
Able to acknowledge fragility of life
Death may be viewed as philosophical problem in life
Understand death as final and unavoidable
“Jessica died.”
“Do you have any questions about how/why she died?”
Important to be truthful
Give teen opportunity to ask questions
Do not treat teen like a child