How to talk to children about death and dying

It is important to use clear and simple language when describing funerals, burials or cremation.  Before you begin, make sure that your child fully grasps the concept of death.  If your child thinks that a person can still feel, the idea of a burial or cremation can be very distressing.

We have leaflets for children which children can help you talk about death in a way children understand such as "their body has stopped working and it cannot be fixed, they don't feel things anymore or they don't get cold or hungry."  Please see the FAQs or click on the links below.


Should I take my child to the funeral?

We are often asked “should children go to the funeral?”. Some adults assume that children, especially young children, are better off not attending the funeral. However, many children we have worked with, have found the funeral a helpful way to show their grief and to say goodbye to the person they loved. Even very young children can benefit and may be happy to look back and know that they were involved. Try to make provisions for the care of young children if they attend. Their attention span is likely to be less than yours and you need time to grieve in your own way.

Explaining what the funeral is and why we have them, will help your child decide if they would like to attend. Whatever their age, talk to them about whether they would like to go or not. If they decide not to, they might like to show involvement in another way by sending flowers, a letter or picture they have made.

We understand that this can be a difficult decision to make but from explaining what will happen at a funeral, children and young people are more likely to feel better equipped to make a decision and say goodbye in their own way, and not feel angry, isolated and rejected.

It is natural that you will want to protect them from a painful experience where they will also see people crying, but if the person was important to them, they will grieve in their own way. A funeral is an opportunity for a family to share their loss together and begin their grieving process as well as a time to share happy memories about the person who has died.

What is a funeral?

Use simple language that your child will understand. Explain exactly when and where it will be and who will attend. You could even visit the venue beforehand.

  • Prepare them as much as you can.

" A funeral is where family and friends come together to remember the person who has died and to say goodbye. It will be in the church on Saturday. Grandad, Aunty Bess and your cousins will be there."

  • Explain what will happen and offer them the opportunity to have some involvement.

"People will bring cards and flowers. Friends and family will talk about grandma. We will sing some songs that she liked and read one of her favourite poems. What things do you remember about grandma? Would you like to bring a picture?"

"You can come or not come. Let's take some time to think about it. Ask me any questions you have, then we can talk about what you would like to do..."

How do I explain about burial or cremation?

Very young children may not need to know about what happens to the body after the funeral. From school age up, children are more likely to ask questions and want to understand details. Keep your language clear and simple. It is better for children to have the true facts than to make them up themselves.

"At the funeral, grandma's body will be in a special wooden box called a coffin. The coffin will be at the front of the church and some friends and family may place things in the coffin. If you would like to you could put something in the coffin as well..."

"After the funeral, the coffin will be closed and placed into a deep hole in the ground. Remember, grandma cannot feel anything anymore. There will be a gravestone where grandma has been buried. Whenever we want to remember grandma we can visit her grave..."

If you are explaining a cremation consider your words carefully as the idea of burning and fire can be quite frightening. Once again assure your child that person who has died can no longer feel anything.

For young children you may be able to keep it fairly simple:

"After the funeral, the body will be taken to a special place where it will be turned into a kind of powder called ashes. The ashes will be kept in a pot called an urn..."

Older children may want to know more about the process:

"After the funeral, the coffin will be closed and taken away. It will be placed into a kind of hot oven where the body will turn into ashes (like a powder). Remember, grandma is not in her body anymore and she doesn't feel anything. We will get to keep her ashes in an urn which is a special pot...."

"We may decide to scatter grandma's ashes in a place that she liked. We can think about that later..."

Some key things to consider are:

  • For toddlers or babies, would they sit for a long period of time and if unlikely, do you have someone on hand who could help look after them if they become restless or distressed?
  • Has the funeral been explained and the child/young person been given the opportunity to say if they would like to attend? A funeral should be explained in an age appropriate way using simple language.
  • Do you have someone on hand to support your child/children if they become distressed and do they know they can leave at any time to reduce their anxiety?
  • How can you involve your child/children in the funeral i.e. choose music that is played, read something or have an adult read something they have written.
  • Has your child/children created something special such as a message, object or picture to put in the coffin to help them feel included, particularly if they are not attending the funeral.
  • If they do not want to attend, some children like to stick to their usual routine and go to school and others may stay with someone close to them. Do they have someone they can talk to during the day if they want to?
  • How can you involve them after the funeral? Could you take photographs of the flowers, talk to them about what happened and/or take them to where the ashes or body are and say goodbye privately?
What should I do if my child wants to visit the grave or cemetery?

Like attending funerals, many children appreciate the opportunity to visit graves or cemeteries and remember the person they have lost.

Your child may have misconceptions about graveyards being spooky places from TV or stories. It's worth explaining that they are peaceful places where you can come to remember someone who has died.

If your child would rather not visit the graveyard or cemetery you may be able to offer an alternative place you can go to remember them or they may like to send something such as flowers or a card.