What are the Dos and Don’ts of Talking with a Preschooler about Death?

Death is part of life, it will happen to everybody, no one could escape it. Unfortunately, knowing does not mean accepting it easily. And even for adults, it is very hard to realize that person you love will never talk to you again, everything that’s left is your memory. But how to explain to a child, who does not understand, what death is and why beloved granny could not come to play anymore? In this case, children need all our support and love to go through it, and yes we need to TALK about it no matter how hard it’s for us. So, how to find the right words and What are the Dos and Don’ts of Talking with a Preschooler about Death, we asked practicing psychologists and pediatricians to share their professional experience and give us a few pieces of valuable advice.

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Carol R. Hughes, Ph.D., LMFT


Carol R. Hughes, Ph.D., LMFT  is a California-licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, EMDR therapist, family-focused divorce professional, board-certified in clinical hypnosis, who provides individual, marital, and family therapy for children, adolescents, and adults in her private practice in Laguna Hills, California. She holds her doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology, achieving both summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa honors and is a two-time Fulbright Scholar. She writes for numerous publications, including Psychology Today, and is the co-author of Home Will Never Be the Same Again: A Guide for Adult Children of Gray Divorce.

What are the  Dos and Don’ts of Talking with a Preschooler about Death

1.Pre-schoolers are black and white, concrete thinkers and have short attention spans.

Do use concrete, simple language like, “Grandpa’s heart was very sick (or very old), it stopped working, and he died.”

Do ask others who are involved in the child’s life to use the same language. This will help avoid confusion and anxiety in the child.

Don’t say, “She went to sleep.”  This can cause sleep problems for the child, who may fear that he or a parent will die if he goes to sleep. Don’t say, “She went away.” This can cause the child to fear separations from parents, caregivers, and other family members, fearing they may die too and never return.

Don’t give too much information like, “Grandma felt fine and didn’t know she was sick.” It can confuse the children and cause anxiety and worry that others they love or the children themselves could suddenly die.

2.Pre-schoolers’ concept of time is that events are temporary, not permanent.

Most pre-schoolers do not understand the permanence of death. Their grandparent’s death might be the first time they are experiencing death. They cannot imagine not seeing their grandparent again. For example, they may ask, “When is Grandpa coming back to see us?’ or “Will Grandpa come for my birthday?’

Do say, “Grandpa will not be coming back to see us.”

Don’t pretend that Grandpa is “away.” This will give them false hope and delay accepting the loss at a young age.

3.Children often think they did something to cause the person to die, like not wanting to talk with Grandpa when he last called or not wanting to give Grandma a hug when they last saw her.

Do Assure the children that they did not cause the death and that their grandparents loved them and did not want to leave them.

Don’t give too much information about aging, illness, etc. that is beyond their understanding. It can confuse them and cause anxiety and worry for them.

4.Pre-schoolers are just beginning to learn about their feelings and how to talk about them. They may not know how to express their feelings.

Do encourage them to ask questions, draw, color, play with their toys, or do some with them from books about helping pre-schoolers cope with death.

Do allow them to talk about the grandparent who has died. Look at photos with them, share memories of times with the grandparent, and share your feelings about the times together and how you feel about the loss.

Don’t pressure them by continually asking them how they are feeling about Grandpa’s death. They may not know nor have the words to express themselves.

5.Children grieve differently than adults. They may seem not to react, ask no questions, not cry, or withdraw.

Do give them some space and quiet time, if they seem to want it, for them to try to process the information in their own way. Tell them you will answer their questions as best you can whenever they want to ask them.

Don’t pressure them to talk if they don’t seem ready.

Do allow them to participate in the funeral arrangements and service if they want to. Prepare them for what the service will be like, for example, an open casket, graveside burial, or a photo of the grandparent at a celebration of life. Use the information brochures provided by most mortuaries to learn more about talking with very young children about death and preparing them for services.

If the children ask where Grandma is, do share your belief system, whether it is faith-based or otherwise.

Alison Escalante MD, FAAP


Dr. Escalante offers so many resources for parents, from her blog, free parenting courses, judgment-free Facebook parenting group, and she’s even on TikTok.  Alison Escalante MD is a Pediatrician, TEDx Speaker, Writer, and Woman on a Mission to ease the epidemic of anxiety that has convinced us we are always failing and is stealing our joy. She has developed a 3 step method to help parents raise their kids skillfully AND enjoy doing it. She writes for Forbes on the science of human performance and Psychology Today on life in the culture of anxiety.

She has degrees from Princeton in the history of ideas and Rutgers in medicine and did her pediatric training at Duke and the University of Chicago.

She is an adjunct faculty member of Rush University School of Medicine.

What are the  Dos and Don’ts of Talking with a Preschooler about Death?

My son and Great Grandpa had a special bond. Even though Great Grandpa had dementia and hearing loss, my son could get him up and walk with a huge smile on his face. And while he was only four years old when his Great Grandpa died, my son’s grief was real and painful. But as a pediatrician, I already knew how to talk to a young child about death. Here’s what I did, and what I hope you will find helpful for your own child:

1. Do tell the truth and use the word “died.”Preschoolers think in concrete reality. When we use the real words for what we are talking about we take the fear away. When we avoid talking about things or using words like “dead” we create fear in our children. They know that this is something bad that we can’t talk about.

If you are in too much pain or just can’t find the words for a young child, read the book “When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death,” by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown. This touching illustrated book is a favorite of child therapists and meets you and your child where you are in your grief.

2. Don’t use euphemisms or code words. Young children don’t understand ideas like “passed on” or even “went to heaven.” They want to know where heaven is, what it is like, and what exactly Grandpa will be doing there. Is Grandpa having fun? Does he miss me? It is definitely okay to share your family beliefs about death and the afterlife with your child, but be prepared to give concrete answers. And remember kids want to know their loved one is playing. There is nothing more terrifying to a child than cartoonish images of a bored angel floating on a cloud with a harp.

3. Do ask your child to imagine. Even if your personal beliefs do not include an afterlife, those of us who are left behind when a loved one dies still feel connected. It’s okay to ask your child to imagine that love and connection. Ask them to imagine where Grandpa is and what he is doing. This is also a great way to make sure that you know about any fears they have and can address them. Your child needs to know that Grandpa is okay.

4. Do create a regular family ritual of remembrance. When I was in training as a pediatrician, a wise grief counselor told me this, “Grief is a process. It is something you do. It means talking about the person you have loved and lost until you find the urge to talk about them lessens.” Try having everyone say something they remember about Grandpa at family meals. Or something they wonder about Grandpa. Or each of you says a few words aloud to Grandpa during the bedtime routine.

5. Do show your own grief. So many parents have the idea that it’s bad for kids to see us cry. This is totally incorrect. When we show our kids the bravery to feel our feelings and share them in connection with those we love, we give our kids the strength to face their own feelings.

Don’t turn your child into your comforter, of course. You are the parent and you are in the lead. But do say, “I am sad right now. I really miss Grandpa. How are you feeling?” And hug if your child wants to.


Ann Buscho, Ph.D.



Ann Buscho – Psychologist and Collaborative Law Coach. Author, The Parent’s Guide to Birdnesting: A Child-Centered Solution to Co-Parenting During Separation or Divorce.  Described as “A perceptive and essential guide to an uncommon family arrangement.” by Kirkus Reviews.

What are the  Dos and Don’ts of Talking with a Preschooler about Death?


1. Tell your child as soon as possible. (This will help them understand why you may be upset.)

2. Use the words “died,” or “death.” Words such as “passed” or “went to sleep and won’t wake up” are both confusing and terrifying to children.

3. Explain that death is a part of life, normal and expected. You might refer to a pet that has died or some other experience of death familiar to the child. If you want to bring in your faith or spiritual beliefs, that’s fine too.

4. Answer their questions honestly. Too much information might be overwhelming.

5. Explain what will happen now: a funeral? Memorial? Gatherings? A viewing or awake?


1. Don’t pretend that nothing has happened, even if you keep your routines the same. Don’t be afraid to show your emotions and let them show theirs. All feelings are okay.

2. Don’t avoid talking about the loved one who has died. Share stories and memories often.

3. Don’t give your child any sense that the death was caused by him or her. A child might associate the death with some misbehavior, such as a tantrum.

4. Don’t pretend the loved one is coming back, “Grandma has gone far away” etc.  (This is confusing).

5. Don’t overwhelm your child with too much information. For example, it may not be appropriate to take your child to a viewing–that depends on your child’s maturity and sensitivity.

Ron Stolberg Ph.D.


Ronald Stolberg, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and professor at the California School of Professional Psychology at Alliant International University and the author of the best-selling and award-winning book Teaching Kids to Think: Raising Confident, Independent, and Thoughtful Children in an Age of Instant Gratification. Affiliation: Alliant International University

What are the  Dos and Don’ts of Talking with a Preschooler about Death?

1. Let the experts help guide you with this difficult discussion. There are amazing books out there that can use to help you come up with the right words and tone. Books are a great tool because kids like to look at them or have them read over and over. This way the concepts and ideas become familiar over time. Let the experts help you with this difficult discussion.

2. Remember that a preschooler’s mind isn’t ready for a complicated explanation. Always make sure your language is age/developmentally appropriate. That means you would talk to a preschooler differently than an elementary-aged child, or one in middle school. Use simple words and ideas, nothing too complicated. Preschoolers simply are not ready for an existential conversation about death. Simple explanations are best.

3. It is okay to be sad but protect your children from really big emotions. In your discussion, it is okay to be sad and show tears, especially if someone close just passed. I would suggest that you not share overly dramatic emotional responses. Hysterics will only scare a young child and it conveys the idea that it is not okay to talk about it. Wait until you can manage your own emotions before sharing them with a young child. If you are not emotionally stable and ready to talk about it then wait until you are.

4. Make the topic one that is okay to talk about. We suggest to families that it is great to talk to young kids about people who have passed rather than avoid the topic. Do so in a way that brings a smile to your face and normalize that it is okay to talk about someone who passed. “Grandma loved strawberries, she would have loved these” or “Uncle Jose always loved old cars, he would have really liked that red one over there.” By making it normal and fun to talk about missing someone you make it okay for a child to ask more questions when they are ready.

5. This is a great time to share your family beliefs. Families have lots of different understandings about what happens when someone passes away. This is an appropriate opportunity to share your family views and beliefs. Having talked about what you believe happens is always appropriate. Just remember to keep the language developmentally appropriate and be emotionally stable when talking about it, otherwise, your emotions will be all a child understands. We don’t want the message to be “talking about death is frightening”.

Mary C. Lamia, Ph.D.


Mary Lamia, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst who works with adults, couples, adolescents, and preteens in her Marin County private practice. She is a professor at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, California. Extending psychological knowledge to the public has been her endeavor for many years. Her books include Emotions! Making Sense of Your Feelings; Understanding Myself: A Kid’s Guide to Intense Emotions and Strong Feelings; The White Knight Syndrome: Rescuing Yourself From Your Need to Rescue Others; What Motivates Getting Things Done: Procrastination, Emotions, and Sucess; and The Upside of Shame: Therapeutic Interventions Using the Positive Aspects of a “Negative” Emotion.

What are the  Dos and Don’ts of Talking with a Preschooler about Death?

1. Explain to the child, “Your grandmother (grandfather) is in a special place. We can’t see her (him), but she (he) loves you very much.”

2. Encourage, rather than discourage, memories of the grandparent, particularly if the child expresses missing them. Ask the child about a favorite time with the grandparent, or something the child loved most about them.

3. Be mindful when talking to other adults about the death when the child is present (especially in phone conversations). Young children may not understand what you are saying, however, they absolutely do hear vocal tones and rhythms which convey the emotion that affects them.

4. Stay connected to the child. A parent may be grieving the loss of their own parent and not be aware of their emotional disconnection from the child or a change in routine that affects the child.

5. Try to avoid words that imply the grandparent was “taken,” since children will not understand and they tend to assume that what happens to a loved one can happen to themselves or to their parents.

Caren Osten


Caren Osten is a certified positive psychology coach, mindfulness instructor, and writer. She works with individuals and groups, who seek to cultivate greater positivity, clarity, and calm as they navigate life’s daily stresses, challenges, and shifts. Caren has led workshops at Kripalu, the JCC Manhattan, MNDFL meditation studios, and speaks publicly, sharing the benefits, practices, and science of optimism, self-compassion, mindfulness, and resilience. A contributor to The New York Times, Psychology Today, Mindful magazine, and others, Caren writes about health and wellbeing, travel, and education. Learn more about her work at www.carenosten.com and find her @carenosten on social media.

What are the  Dos and Don’ts of Talking with a Preschooler about Death?

1. Be honest – While young children may not fully understand the concept of death and loss, it’s important to share openly and honestly that their grandparent is gone and they will not see them again in person again. If a person suddenly disappears from a child’s life, they may question whether it has something to do with them. So, explaining in a kind and compassionate way that dying—with words such as “leaving this earth” or “going to heaven,” for example—is part of life can be an honest, genuine start of a deeper conversation to engage in once your child is older and has a better understanding of the life cycle.

2. Listen mindfully –  It’s hard to know how children will respond to the news, and it’s important to give them the time and space to process and respond. Listen to their words and offer validation for any emotions or reactions they share—no matter what they are. Children can be unusually intuitive, so keep your ears open for anything they want to share.

3. Encourage questions – Your child may have questions and this is a good thing. This is likely the first time they are hearing about the death of someone they know and love, and it’s possible that despite their age they will wonder what it all means. As mentioned above, answer their questions truthfully, and in as simple a way as possible. A child’s sense of curiosity can be a window worth looking through for all of us.

4. Offer comfort – If your child sees you in pain—a natural part of life—that is perfectly okay. While it may cause some fear, as may the news that they’ve lost a grandparent, you can offer them comfort and security by holding and hugging them, and sharing with them that you are here with them, that you love them, and that they are safe.

5. Share memories – Looking at photos with children can nurture positive memories of them and their grandparents. It is a good beginning for telling stories, encouraging connection, and cultivating gratitude for the good times they have had with their grandparent.

Cara Damiano Goodwin, Ph.D.

Instagram @Parentingtranslator


Cara Goodwin, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and a mother to three children. She received a Ph.D. in child clinical psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a Master’s in Developmental Psychiatry from Cambridge University, and a Master’s in Child Psychology from Vanderbilt University, and she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Duke University.

What are the  Dos and Don’ts of Talking with a Preschooler about Death?

1. DO use clear language and explain exactly what the death will mean for the child (“Grandpa died last night. We won’t be going to visit him anymore and we won’t be able to FaceTime with him”)

2. DON’T use euphemisms (such as “passed away”) that may be unclear to a child

3. DO express your own emotions about the death and explain the coping strategies that you will try to use to feel better.

4. DON’T tell them how to feel and instead accept all feelings they have. Young children may not always be sad but instead be curious, unaffected, or even angry about the death.

5. DO ask what questions they have and answer their questions as openly and honestly as you can.


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