How to Explain Death to a Toddler

When I received news that my friend had died of cardiac arrest, I did not have the chance or the strength to seclude myself and cry it out. I broke down in an instant as my then 4-year-old daughter watched me. I have never understood what went through her mind but she just started rubbing my back. I remember she looked dazed and asked a million questions which I had no answers to. How do you tell a preschooler about death? Is it necessary to start with? They won’t understand. Or will they? 

The best time to explain death to a toddler is before it happens to them. You can use familiar examples like the death of a prominent person. Explain simply without going into all the detail. Tell them about the things the person can no longer do, for example, eat, visit, walk, or play. They will have questions for sure, be kind and answer with simplicity, don’t scold them for wanting to act it out, let them be.

I received the call a while we had just taken a shower and I was oiling her. I remembered I had heard the phone ring while in the shower. I checked only to realize it was another close friend’s missed call. I immediately called back. The narration seemed kind yet too fast, I don’t remember much except dressing my daughter while crying and praying at the same time.

Do you think your toddler does not know death? Think again.

I learned a long time ago that I am not my daughter’s only influence. She has her teachers, she has friends, neighbors, and the list is endless. And even if she didn’t hear it from all these people, she’s watched stuff about death in cartoons. She sees dead bugs and overhears people talk about death. Toddlers know about death, just not the same way you know it. This is how you can demystify death to them.

Tell them about the simple things they are used to

The safest way to tell a child about death is to speak to them at their level. Tell them how the person will no longer visit and bring toys like they used to. Tell them they can no longer see, talk or play with them anymore. 

My daughter had many questions of course and I answered them as they came. To some questions, I simply said: “I don’t know”. It’s important for a child to understand death as a mystery which we don’t have all the answers to. It’s equally important to prepare the child beforehand for what they will see. I told my daughter there will be people gathering for prayers. I told her that during the funeral, many people will come and they will be sad. I also explained there will be a service and my friend will be in a casket.

How to answer kids’ questions about death?

If there’s a time you need patience, it is when the questions start. They can pour like rain and be the same questions only in different words. Give room for the questions and answer with examples to make them understand better. Avoid sounding like an expert or judgmental. This leads me to my next point.

Be careful to follow the child’s lead and only share as much information as they can handle. Do not hide your emotions from them or isolate them, cry together and let them assist in whatever they can. I allowed my daughter in the meetings and she understood why people were crying and why there was a casket. If you take your child through this journey, you can expect the child to heal. In case the child does not recover as expected, engage a therapist. 

1.    Avoid using confusing phrases such a ‘passing on’

Adults avoid mentioning death all the time. They use resting in peace, passing away, sleeping and such synonyms. Unfortunately, these somewhat ‘kinder’ phrases confuse toddlers. They can’t grasp them and they may easily misinterpret them. For example, they may fear going to bed thinking they will sleep and not wake up.

2.    If they are ready, tell them about the hard part

It may be tricky to explain issues such as the cause of death, why the person must be buried (if this is the case), why they must be put in a casket and such like issues. Allow them to share pre-conceived ideas gathered from other children, cartoons, or movies. Explain using actions. Lie flat and motionless to explain how a dead person looks like. Show them a cartoon when a person or pet dies. Make it easy for them to find the answers they are seeking.

3.    Let them mourn

Children go through a mourning period too. Although they may not understand what is happening in totality, they can go through moments of sadness. For some, this may be delayed for weeks or months. Mourning can be seen in their change of behavior such as rebelling, wetting the bed, refusing to eat or withdrawing. 

The mourning is mostly triggered by adults who are mourning. At this point, help them understand their feelings, let them know it’s normal to feel bad about death. You can refer to yourself or a close mourning relative. Say “I can tell you are sad that granny has died. I am sad too, it’s normal to feel that way.” Explain how you will miss the deceased as you will no longer see them or talk to them.

4.    Explain what next

Kids find solace in simple things such as having the same person to feed them or help them sleep. Let them understand that there will always be someone to help them. Explain to them foreseeable changes, for example, moving houses, changing schools, and so on.

In Summary

When my friend died, I explained to my daughter what had happened, in plain words. I didn’t tell her “I have lost my friend”, no. I told her “my friend has died.” Toddlers can understand the pain and the tears in your eyes. When you are emotionally open to a child, they learn how to mourn. Immediately after, she rubbed my back; which means toddlers have the ability to emotionally respond. Let the child respond their way. 

Also see What to Say When Someone Dies Unexpectedly


Am a graduate sociologist and a regular contributor to national publications such as the American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Journal of Applied Social Science and the Annual Review of Sociology.

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