How to Talk to Kids about Death & Dying

Having a conversation about death and dying is not typically a conversation people are excited to have with their kids. And yet, we all know it’s necessary. A friend of mine came over to me at a party the other day. She had just found out that her mother-in-law had stage 4 cancer. While dealing with her own whirlwind of emotions, knowing that I provide tips and scripts to have these tough conversations with kids, she asked me; “What do I tell the kids? What if they ask me if she’ll die? What do I say when she does?” The concept of dying can be scary, sad, confusing, angering and upsetting for many of us. Our own emotions, our concern about our children’s emotions- how they are going to take the news- how they are going to cope with life when someone they love dies- how might they grieve—what’s normal- these can make us worry about having the conversations in the first place. Not to mention, our confusion over what to say and how to say it can make this topic on how to talk to kids about death and dying- a real tough one.

Special Guest: Joe Primo

Joe Primo is the CEO of Good Grief in Morristown and Princeton, New Jersey. Good Grief serves hundreds of children and families each month after the death of a mom, dad, sister or brother. Primo also served as the President of the National Alliance for Grieving Children. Primo currently serves on the Advisory Board of Option Bat the Sheryl Sandberg and Dave Goldman Family Foundation. Primo formerly worked as a hospice Chaplain at both The Connecticut Hospice and The Hospice of Southeastern Connecticut. He received his Masters of Divinity from Yale University, where concentrated in end-of-life care. Primo is the author of What Do We Tell the Children? Talking to Kids About Death and Dying. He is also the author of “The Business of Grief,” which appears in At the End of Life: True Stories About How We Die by CNF PressPrimo has appeared in or on CNN, The Chicago Tribute, FOX, ABC, AND MANY OTHER NEWS OUTLETS- and guess what? He has a Ted Talk that JUST came out- you’ll see the link in the show2 notes– called “Grief is Good!” You can get more information on Joe and on Good Grief at

The podcast provides:

  • Tips: How to talk to kids about death and dying
  • Scripts: What words to use when talking to kids about these sensitive topics—when someone is dying or when someone has died.
  • Brainstorming some questions that we want to ask the person who may be dying—how might you want to spend your time with this person?
  • How to own your own baggage when it comes to death and dying.
  • How to use biology to explain death.
  • A discussion of resilience and how it applies to children who are experiencing loss in their families.

Important Messages:

  • Grief comes out in many ways- in physical ways as well as emotional ways.
  • If we don’t get grief out, it gets bottled up. It can come out in physical way—from headaches and behavioral issues.
  • Research tells us that continuing to connect to the person who died is incredibly important- especially to kids.
  • We need to talk to about death and grief.
  • Kids are influenced by adults- if adults don’t have the tips and ability to talk about death, the kids won’t either.
  • Use the movies (many Disney) to start a dialogue about death when they present it.
  • There are many risk factors in childhood bereavement. Risk factors are reduced dramatically when kids are in a loving place where they can ask questions and get answers.
  • Death is as common as birth but not celebrated or discussed in the same way.
  • Kids have concerns—and think about death in terms of what can help meet their needs. Who will take care of me? Who will get me to my sports? Who will read to me at night?
  • Grief can feel very overwhelming. Kids are trying to deal with the question they are dealing with right now. If they take it all in at once, they’re not going to be able to sort through it.
  • Kids move in and out of grief. So the helpful response is not “how are you doing” but “how are you doing today?”
  • We need literal, concrete ways to talk about death so that young kids can understand.
  • Resilience is not something you are born with—it’s like a muscle that can be developed and trained. Just pretending a kid is going to bounce back is not going to cut it. We need an environment and support system in place. Resilience is a collection of many tools.
  • Children can learn both gratitude and joy in this new normal—and still miss someone who died.

Notable Quotables:

  • “To understand grief is to know that there are these four components: Emotional, physical, spiritual and intellectual. If you only focus on the emotional, you’d be only getting at a quarter of the issue.”
  • “Grief has a purpose…every human across time, has experienced grief. It’s a normal response to losing something and someone you love. I believe grief helps us to form a new identity. It helps us to develop a new norm. It helps us to integrate our relationship with the person who died into our future.”
  • “Grief needs a rebrand. Grief is a hard experience. And because it’s a hard, we’ve labeled it as bad when, actually, grief is good. Death is the thing that implodes your life but grief is the thing that puts it back together.”
  • Grief can feel very overwhelming. Kids are trying to deal with the question they are dealing with right now. If they take it all in at once, they’re not going to be able to sort through it.
  • “Grief is not a linear process. Grief is like a roller coaster. It’s up, down, all around. The smell of perfume can remind you of your mom and all of a sudden you’re in a tailspin for the rest of the day. For kids and adults alike, every single day is different. And as the grieving person, you have no idea how your day is going to unfold.”
  • “I think we function is a culture that likes to be hopeful and optimistic but with that, comes some consequences on kids. For folks who have an illness and who are young, we tend to think it’s a young body and it’ll endure a lot. Because medical treatment really promotes all sorts of different remedies, I think as a result, we try to remain helpful but we sacrifice open dialogue and conversation with kids. And then kids are holy unprepared.”
  • “For there to be a richer sense of intimacy and connection with the ones that we love, often the way we get there, is by talking about death and acknowledging it. What does it actually mean to face adversity head on and do it in a meaningful way that brings us closer? In my opinion, that means vulnerability. That means acknowledging the uncertainty. You can do those things and still be hopeful. Because at the end the end of the day, what our mortality teaches us is how to use our time.”
  • For us, death is hard but for kids, it’s very much a question mark.
  • “Resilience is a collection of a lot of tools. We have to look at a child’s constitution. We need to ask ourselves, what are the types of tools that are going to help them navigate this uncertain future—this particular adversity? Because if we can help them build that toolbox, it’s not going to just serve them with this particular adversity, it’s going to be something they can lean on for the rest of their lives. That’s the resilience.”
  • “We need to normalize death and grief as part of the human condition.”