How to Discuss Death — From Real People to Pets to Fictional Characters — With Your Kids

As unpleasant as it can be to talk about, death is simply a part of life. And while we do everything in our power to shield our young kids from upsetting conversations, unfortunately, talking about what happens when someone dies is a topic that will eventually come up. It's certainly understandable why parents prefer not to dive into all the details — depending on your kids' ages — but having an informative answer to questions like, "Where did Grandma go when she died?" and "Is our pet cat Fluffy ever coming back?" can be especially helpful when you're caught off guard.

We asked Heather Yardley, PhD, pediatric psychologist at Nationwide Children's Hospital, for tips on having this conversation. Here's what she has to say.

How do you talk to children about family members dying?

While talking about death at any age can be challenging, Dr. Yardley encourages parents to really take their child's developmental level into account.

"You're going to talk to a toddler different than an elementary school aged kid," she told POPSUGAR. "And I think definitely in any case you want to give straightforward information by letting them know that their grandparent had passed away or died. Let the kid drive the conversation from there. They might have questions about what death means or how long it lasts? Little kids often don't understand the finality of death. That means that conversation might have to happen multiple times in order for the kid to understand that Grandma's not coming back."

"The first thing to do is to normalize feelings. Everybody's upset. Everybody is really sad."

Although it can be hard to come up with the perfect words when you're put on the spot, Dr. Yardley emphasized the importance of using the correct language. "It's also important to be relatively careful about the language that we use," she explained. "Don't use phrases like, 'sleeping' or 'gone away,' because kids think gone away means I left the house, not necessarily that a person died. Even though it's kind of a splitting hairs, I think with kids using concrete language is always best."

For older children who fully understand the gravity of the situation, routinely discussing and recognizing their feelings is imperative.

"The first thing to do is to normalize feelings. Everybody's upset. Everybody is really sad. Make sure that the conversation continues," encouraged Dr. Yardley. "Grief often comes in waves, people do okay for a little bit and then it sort of hits them. It's going to hit them at different times, like the holidays, grandma's birthday, or their birthday."

She continued: "Open the door of the conversation again. How are you feeling? Do you miss Grandma? Modeling our own feelings is really important. So if it's a grandparent that means it's one of the parents' parents. Showing that it's okay to talk about it and say, 'I really miss Grandma today. I'm sad that she's not here. She would have liked this. I'm feeling sad that's why I'm crying,' and labeling things for kids and letting them know it's OK, however they respond."

How do you talk to kids about pets passing away?

For families who love animals, having a beloved pet die can be absolutely gut-wrenching. And because their lifespans are usually shorter than ours, it could unfortunately be a conversation you find yourself having more than once.

"Obviously with a pet they have been around less time, but they are still part of the family," said Dr. Yardley. "We want to be honest and what happened by saying things like, Fluffy was sick, and now she's gone or she died. She's up in heaven. As far as pets are concerned, you can do smaller things to help with like memories. Dr. Yardley suggests having a memorial service for the pet in-question or making a planter out of your old dog's water dish and collar. "Have a little memorial, or a way to signify the passing of their life," she suggested. "That gives kids that bit of closure."

If your pet needs to be put to sleep, deciding whether or not your child should be present is a difficult personal decision. At the end of the day, parents need to figure out whether or not their kids can handle the situation.

"An older kid who can really grasp that their pet is suffering, that this is a planned decision, that it's the best thing for the pet and they want to be there, I think having them there is totally appropriate," she explained. "I would always encourage parents to use their gut. Some kids will say, 'I want to be there.' And, as parents, you're like, 'Oh, I just know you can't.'"

For children who are too young to be in the room for their pet passing, Dr. Yardley suggests giving each family member time alone with the animal to say their goodbyes beforehand. "Let them have some time together or have them give their pet a special treat," she said. "They might need some snuggle time so that they have that last positive memory."

How do you talk to children about fictional characters dying?

While parents should handle the discussion of a death of a fictional character similarly to a real person, it's crucial to vocalize the difference.

"It's important to draw that distinction between a fictional character and a real [one]. Use that opportunity to talk about death in general and that when people die, it's sad," explained Dr. Yardley. "Even though this isn't a real person and the actor, say, is still alive, it can be really hard for littler kids to see a character die, and then see the actor doing something else in real life."

Parents should also let their kids grieve characters — like in Harry Potter, for example — who pass away. While the person isn't real, the child's emotions are very much so. It also doesn't hurt to do a little research before a child watches a movie, so moms and dads can be aware of what conversations might come up ahead of time.

How do you respond when a child asked where people go when they die?

While this delicate question might understandably give parents pause, it's best to be straightforward. "I would be totally honest, within reason. You're not going to talk about decomposition or anything that happens to the physical body, but I would be honest and true to whatever the family's culture and faith is," said Dr. Yardley. "If you're a religious family who believes in heaven, explain death to your children in that context. After the initial crisis, parents could explain that other people may believe in other things."

And if you personally don't believe in the afterlife or don't feel comfortable explaining it, that's perfectly OK, too. "If it's a family doesn't have a religious belief, just say, 'We don't know. We don't know what happens,'" advised Dr. Yardley. "It's hard to not have an answer, especially when someone's in distress. But what helps kids process things and be able to move forward is that authenticity and being honest. so if you don't know, it's totally fine!"