Talking about death with children

Our Parent Journey group had a discussion on talking about death with children. Kristen Freeman-Williams put together a great handout on the topic, which is included after the jump. This is definitely one of those handouts you’d like to read before you need it!

Talking about death with children

Advice to parents from the book Where Do People Go When They Die? by Rabbi Mindy Avra Portnoy

1. Do not answer more than your child has asked, or more than he/ she is ready to absorb. In this sense, it is like talking about sex.

2. Be honest. Say “some people believe this” and “some people believe that” if there are questions you are not certain about. Don’t pretend to believe in something in which you do not believe (heaven, or an afterlife, for example), but leave options open for your children.

3. Use books, movies and television shows to help in your conversation. A librarian, teacher, or clergy person can help you choose age-appropriate material.

4. Call on others if you need them as resources, but consider yourself the principal teacher / mentor to your child. You shouldn’t ALWAYS have to say, “We’ll go ask the rabbi or minister.”

5. Prepare your child for what will happen at the funeral or memorial service, and at the cemetery. Lack of information is more frightening than knowledge. If you are not certain, ask the officiating clergy or a friend to explain.

6. Help your child create a memory book about the person, including pictures and words.

7. Do not be surprised if your child asks “unusual” questions. At his grandfather’s funeral, Rabbi Portnov’s 5-year-old son asked, “Won’t his clothes get dirty in the ground?” A little boy who’s worried about keeping his clothes clean would see that as a normal question. Other children may ask what will happen with the deceased person’s possessions. Share this information with your child.

8. Do not be dismayed if your child does NOT ask a lot of questions, but also do not mistake silence for a lack of concern. Children, like adults, grieve in different ways. Be alert for changes in behavior.

9. If a child becomes obsessed with death or has continuing nightmares, seek professional help from a counseling service or clergy.


We have several books in the UUCPA library on talking to children about death and grief, all around 306.9 in the CRE section.

In addition through the public libraries you can find:

Badger’s Parting Gifts by Susan Varley. Magi Publications, London. 1997.

A Gift for Abuelita: Celebrating the Day of the Dead by Nancy Luenn. Northland Pub. Co. Flagstaff, AZ. 1998.

The Grandad Tree by Trish Cooke. Candlewick Press. Cambridge, MA. 2000. (Very good.)

The Tenth Good Thing about Barney by Judith Viorst. Aladdin. New York. 1971.

Talking about Death: A Dialogue between Parent and Child by Earl A. Grollman. Beacon Press. Boston. 1990. (Adult book, really good.)

Talking about Death Won’t Kill You by Virginia Morris. Workman Publishing. New York. 2001. (Adult book. I haven’t read but looks good.)

Where Do People Go When They Die? by Mindy Avra Portnoy. Minneapolis, MN: Kar-Ben Pub., 2004.
DVD: Reading Rainbow episode: “Badger’s Parting Gifts.” GPN Educational Media, 2006. 30 minutes. I recommend for school-age children. My five-year-old found it a little too sad.