Talking to Kids About Death and Dying

Nevada Shooting and Preparing for Sandy Hook Anniversary

On the brink of the Sandy Hook anniversary, Nevada is coping with a school shooting that took the life of a math teacher and threatened the lives of many. In times like these we continue to grapple with questions about how and why heartless crimes occur and when they might happen next. In some ways, we may already be headed in the direction of becoming numb to these headlines.

As a grief professional, I am often asked to explain tragedy. There are many layers and contributing factors to the question of why and how, some we know and some we do not. We may not be able to fully answer the questions pertaining to why and how; however, we can confidently share what we can do when it comes to supporting our children, especially as the news is full of difficult images and conversations.

It is important to remember that when a community grieves because of a tragedy, the tragedy becomes a part of the community’s story and the way it sees itself. That story is told by many different voices and perspectives, seen through the eyes of the pastor, mayor, life-long resident, newbie on the block, and its children. A tragedy, and a close call with death, affects how a child sees him or herself in the world.

Here are some helpful things to think about: 

Don’t project your fears onto children

Kids pay close attention to the adults in their life, following their cues and listening closely to what adults are saying. Although it is overwhelming to think about this tragedy occurring in your community–happening to your children–pay close attention to what you’re saying and how you are responding. Children do not respond to death, tragedy, and grief the same way adults do. They process and understand events like these differently from adults. Fearing for your children’s and community’s safety is a normal reaction, but saying things to your child that increase their fear is seldom helpful and does not increase their preparedness for tragedy. Projecting angst on children does not provide them with tools for being safe, it merely creates fear, which can make them feel all the more powerless in times like these.   

Limit access to the repetitious news cycle

The news functions in cycles, and its objective is not concise facts and information for the viewership. It is repetitious and goes on for many days after a tragedy. It is not helpful for a child to watch long segments, filled with graphic narratives about the events or the fear survivors and community members experienced. Pay attention to the television, radio, and Facebook. Even if the tv is on in the background, children are listening to what is being said. Consider getting out of the house and taking a break from social-media and the television.

We can’t protect our children from knowing about tragic events

The fact of the matter is tragic gun violence has become a new norm for our children. The events may be preventable in the future, but for now it is becoming a common occurrence. Locking our children in their rooms until the news cycles change is not helpful. Talking openly and honestly, preparing them for the conversations they’ll have with their friends is important. Being honest if crucial.


Although children may ask difficult questions, listen and answer their questions honestly. As adults, there are many things we don’t understand. It is okay to say “I don’t know.” In fact, admitting that we don’t know may be more helpful and comforting than reaching for clichés or making up answers. Acts like the ones committed in school shootings are more complex than attributing them to “evil” and “monsters.” No doubt the killer’s actions were monstrous, but most children want more thoughtful responses to help them understand. There is not much children can comprehend with the idea of people being monsters. They understand that some people can be mean or hurtful, but euphemisms seldom fulfill their questions.

It is important and empowering to give a child or teen the space to express all of their feelings and asking them what they think. Asking them how they feel about the events provides them an opportunity to explore what this means to them.  

What do we tell the children?

Honesty is important and so too is entering these conversations without expectations. Some kids may respond with fear while others may seem indifferent. No reaction is better or more appropriate than another.  Having a conversation about the shooting with children who want to talk about it is probably a smart and important thing to do before classmates place their own interpretation of the events; many of those narratives will have been learned this weekend from the media and the adults in their lives. Again, there is not a lot we control about these events, but we can play a big role in how our children hear and come to understand the events. We can best support our children by having an honest dialogue that helps build coping skills and taps into their inherent resiliency. Below is a script you might try.

 Adult: So, Alex, have you heard about the sad thing that happened to a school in Nevada?

Don’t assume Alex doesn’t already know. She may have picked it up already.

Adult: Somebody tried to hurt a lot of children with a gun. It’s very sad.

WAIT to see how the child responds.

Adult: I think a lot of your friends and teachers might talk about it and there may be a lot of safety rules you have to follow at school to practice for an emergency. I would like us to talk about it too.

Allow the conversation to happen and be spontaneous. Here are some things you should know about reactions:

  • No child ever responds the same
  • Children may have an increased sense of fear for their safety
  • Children may be afraid to return to school or name “scary kids” in their school
  • Child process information is fragments. They may take it in and then quickly move onto something else.

Adult: I wonder how these things happen.

Wait to see if the child has ideas of her own.

Adult: Assure the child that their school (name administrators and teachers) works hard to keep them safe. You can encourage them to listen to their teachers about safety protocol. Assure them of your love and allow them to explore their reactions.

Often times, being together and offering each other love are the most meaningful things we can tell our children.

As a community, we both grieve for those affected by tragedy and hold hope that when one of us suffers, all of us come together to find a new way forward.