Talking To Your Child About Dying – Step One: Honesty

Author Corey Wisler, Program Assistant at Imagine, A Center for Coping with Loss

“My husband is going to die and I have no idea how to tell our 3-year-old daughter.”

This sentence comes speeding through the receiver the moment I pick up the phone. If this were my private phone line then perhaps this would seem strange, but it’s not. It’s my work line at Imagine, A Center for Coping with Loss, where calls like this happen fairly often.

We understand the urgency and anxiety behind these calls. There are fewer tasks more challenging than telling a child that someone in their life is going to die. Parents or guardians, who are usually in the business of relieving a child’s pain, dread having this conversation. Many adults in this position call Imagine seeking support and advice about how to talk to their children about death. 

Sign Up for E-News

So what is the first step? Be honest.

Children can sense when a change has occurred. Adults speaking in hushed tones, changes in the daily routine and general feelings of sadness, agitation and worry do not go unnoticed by children. This is true even if they do not vocalize that they notice the changes. Just as children are sponges for knowledge, they are also sponges for feelings. Children absorb the atmosphere of the household. Still, many adults believe that by ignoring the conversation, or prolonging it until the last possible moment, children will be protected. This intention comes from a good place, but can cause more harm than good. Concealing information can produce anxiety in children.  

How do you begin such an important conversation? Mandi Zucker, Program Director at Imagine, states, "Starting the conversation may be the hardest part. It's a good idea to practice what you are going to say with a trusted friend or mentor."

Start by stating the facts. Using factual information will help your child develop a deeper cognitive understanding of death. Use language that is developmentally appropriate. In-depth medical details will confuse young children, but understanding the connection between the body and death is key.

Explain that when a person dies their body stops working and they do not eat, think, sleep, feel or talk. Because it is normal for a child to be worried that their body will stop working, too, it is important to remind children that they are safe and that people can get sick without dying.

Spiritual beliefs about the afterlife can be comforting but also confusing for children. We’ve heard stories about children feeling extremely upset and panicked while at the cemetery to visit their family member’s grave because they believed their person was in heaven. Now they were told that he was actually buried in the ground. We can only imagine how angry and confused a child could be after learning that someone is in heaven only to find out that they have been buried in the ground, or cremated and put in an urn in their home. 

How can well-meaning adults avoid this unfortunate situation, and instead foster a supportive, realistic view of death and create trust between them and the child? By explaining that the grandfather’s body is in the ground, but that they believe his soul is in heaven.

Facts and information are important, but children ultimately need to feel emotionally secure. Open the conversation to questions and concerns. Ask the child how they feel. Validate their feelings by showing empathy through statements like, “You feel sad” and normalize their feelings by saying, “I feel sad, too.” Remind your child that they can always come to you with questions or to talk about feelings. In the end, all children want and need to feel felt.

Before you panic about getting everything right, remember that it is okay to do a “retake.” Mandi Zucker, Imagine Program Director says, “It's important to remember that you don't have to have all the answers. The first conversation should be just that - a first. If you see this as a long process that you will continue talking about, you may feel less burdened to have to say everything and have all of the answers in one conversation."

Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it does help ease worries and plan for possible questions and outcomes. If you have any questions or are in need of support, please call Imagine at 908-264-3100.

Imagine is a free year-round children’s grief support center that serves NJ children age 3-18 and young adults 18-30 who are grieving the death of a parent or sibling, or who are living with a parent of sibling with a life-altering illness. Imagine also provides grief education and training for thousands of teachers, parents, coaches, youth and other adults annually.  



The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

TAP Into Another Town's News:

You May Also Be Interested In

Sign Up for E-News


Health Authorities Investigating Death of Elizabeth Schoolgirl who had Flu

February 19, 2018

ELIZABETH, NJ — The New Jersey Department of Health is continuing to investigate the cause of the passing of Daniela Genaro who attended Nicholas LaCorte — Peterstown School No. 3 after it was confirmed that the student had been diagnosed with influenza. Officials say, it "presently remains unclear whether or not the virus was the primary contributing factor to the child's ...

Mayor Brindle’s Update

February 15, 2018

The following are highlights from the update that Mayor Shelley Brindle gave at Tuesday night’s town council meeting.

I first want to congratulate Nick Calello and David Went for their promotions to patrol officers in the Westfield Police Department. I’d also like to welcome and congratulate new Patrol Officer Fortunato Riga, who joins the police department this week upon his ...

Upcoming Events


Thu, February 22, 8:30 AM

Hilton Garden Inn, Hamilton , Hamilton

Defending Your Independent Contractor & Wage & ...

Business & Finance Education Law & Justice


Fri, February 23, 12:00 PM

Resolve, Scotch Plains

Free Teen Anxiety Group (Ages 14-17) at Resolve


Fri, February 23, 5:00 PM

Catanzaro Dining Hall at Saint Joseph High School, Metuchen

Friday Night Lenten Fish Fry

Food & Drink

Point View's Dietze, Petrides Tell LA Times How to Make Sense of Market's Volatility

February 20, 2018

Point View Wealth Management's Founder, President and Chief Investment Strategist, David Dietze, along with the firm's Managing Director and Portfolio Manager, John Petrides, comment in the Los Angeles Times on mistakes investors should avoid when the market heads south:

The duo's advice is part of a piece ...

Westfield Police Blotter: DWI Arrest & More

February 15, 2018

February 7, 2018 10:25 p.m.

Officers Natale and Gill arrested Brian Mueller, age 55, of Westfield, NJ for driving while intoxicated pursuant to an accident investigation in the area of Mountain Avenue by Colonial Avenue. Subject was transported to headquarters, processed and released to a sober adult.


February 9, 2018 2:21 a.m.

Selena G. Palacios, age 22, of Westfield, NJ was ...

19 Homes Sold Last Week in Westfield, Scotch Plains, Fanwood, Cranford & Mountainside

Nineteen homes sold last week, 2/11/2018-2/18/2018, in Westfield,  Scotch Plains, Fanwood, Mountainside and Cranford.*

TOWN                  ...

Good News in NJ for Veterans

Beginning in the 2017 tax year, New Jersey will give an additional $3,000 exemption for military veterans. You are eligible to claim this exemption NJ state income tax return if you are a military veteran who was honorably discharged or released under honorable circumstances from active duty in the Armed Forces of the United States on or before the last day of the tax year.


The ...

Sinai or Sanctuary?



And in the beginning, G‑d was homeless, and so G‑d asked His people to set Him up with some digs. Where does it say that? Well, nowhere, actually. But it does say that G‑d instructed Moses to tell the people, “They shall make for Me a Sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.”

Now the question is, was G‑d really homeless? ...

Westfield Public Schools Celebrate High School and Intermediate Music Honors

Westfield High School sophomore Brooke Walden auditioned and was selected to the New Jersey All-State Wind Ensemble and Orchestra for a second straight year.  Brooke was the top scoring piccolo player and ranked third on the flute.  She will perform in February with the Wind Ensemble and in November with the Orchestra.

Walden also was among 12 WHS musicians to perform in January with ...

How to Talk with Kids About the Florida Shooting

February 13, 2018

The tragedy of the Florida school shooting is devastating, leaving 17 killed and 15 injured. Our children can easily identify with what occurred yesterday. It will be the topic of conversation today in schools everywhere. School administrators are doing all they can to provide support and guidance. The shootings affect children, teachers, and school personnel. The school shooting ...

Love Craft Beer But Hate the Tour? State Assembly Moves to Make it Easier for You to Belly Up to the Bar

Good news is a brew for New Jersey craft beer advocates. In February 2018, the New Jersey Assembly’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee paved the way for the introduction of Bill A2196, which would remove a current licensing rule requiring breweries and distilleries to provide a tour of their facilities before serving alcoholic beverages to consumers. Currently, breweries holding a ...

'What Stays' exposes family secrets and lies

‘What Stays’ exposes family secrets, resentment and lies

By Liz Keill

SUMMIT, NJ – In an original play by Laura Ekstrand and Jason Szamreta, the Dreamcatcher Repertory Theatre has provided an enlightening, funny and heart-felt view of family foibles.

Ekstrand has said that the germ of the play came from conversations with the ensemble members of the troupe, based on ...


AtlantiCast: Episode 12

On this week’s episode of AtlantiCast, decade of excellence makes headlines, as Atlantic Health’s place on Fortune Magazine’s 100 Best Companies to Work For List leads off the newest episode of AtlantiCast. Also on this week’s show, check out the newest “hybrid” operating room at Morristown Medical Center and find out how Atlantic Health is helping local ...

Cat Found in Westfield

UPDATE: Reunited with family!

ORIGINAL POST: Cat found in Golf Edge area of Westfield. Call 908-913-0509.

Is FAANG Long in the Tooth?

Investors love to rally around a stock story. Today it’s all about the FAANG stocks. Facebook (FB), Amazon (AMZN), Apple (AAPL), Netflix (NFLX) and Google (GOOG) are a major reason why the S&P 500 rallied so much in 2017. Mr. Market is convinced the FAANGs are impervious to a sell-off. “Its different this time” is ringing loud and clear, but will the outcome really be that ...

Imagine a Chatham Toboggan Ride from the Top of Fairmount Avenue to Main Street

Did you know….
there was a time when Chatham kids could ice skate from downtown Chatham all the way to Florham Park? And that a toboggan ride could last from the top of Fairmount Avenue down to Main Street and beyond?

Those were the days!

This was back in the early to mid-1900s. The Passaic River meandered through grassy meadows and woods on the north side of Chatham. The marshy ...


Kathleen Marie Christian (nee Helmstetter), age 73 of Surf City, NJ, passed away peacefully at home ...
Read more

5 Injured in Bus Collision with Garbage Truck in Maplewood

February 20, 2018

MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Five people were seriously injured when a NJ Transit bus and a garbage truck collided head-on around 12:45 p.m. on Tuesday, according to a press release from Acting Essex County Prosecutor Robert D. Laurino of the Essex County Prosecutor's office.

The accident occurred near 1450 Springfield Ave., which is directly in front of the NJ Transit ...