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Religion, Death & Other Talking Opportunities with Children

Religion is a prime source of strength and sustenance to many people when they are dealing with death. But if religion has not played an important role in a family’s life before death, a child may be confused or frightened by the sudden introduction of religious explanations or references. Children tend to hear words literally, and religious explanations that may comfort an adult may unsettle a child. For example, the explanation, “Baby brother is with God now,” or “It is God’s will,” could be frightening rather than reassuring to the young child who may worry that God might decide to come and get her just as He did baby brother.

Also, mixed messages are confusing, deepening apprehensions and misunderstandings children may have about death. A statement such as “Jimmy is happy now that he is in Heaven with the angels,” when coupled with obvious and intense grief, can leave them not knowing which to trust – what they see or what they hear. They may wonder why everyone is so unhappy if Jimmy is happy. They need to hear something about the sadness we feel about losing Jimmy as we knew and experienced him, in addition to our expressions of religious faith.

Regardless of how strong or comforting religious beliefs may be, death means the loss of a living being, the absence of a physical presence. It is a time of sadness and mourning. It is important to help children accept the realities of death – the loss and the grief. Attempts to protect children deny them opportunities to share their feelings and receive needed support. Sharing feelings helps. Sharing religious beliefs also helps if done with sensitivity to how children are perceiving and understanding what is happening and what is being said. It is important to check with them to find out how they are hearing and seeing events around them.

Other Talking Opportunities to Children About Loss & Death

It is usually easier to talk about death when we are less emotionally involved.

Taking opportunities to talk to children about dead flowers, trees, insects, or birds may be helpful. Some young children show intense curiosity about dead insects and animals. They may wish to examine them closely or they may ask detailed questions about what happens physically to dead things. Although this interest may seem repulsive or morbid to us, it is a way of learning about death. Children should not be made to feel guilty or embarrassed about their curiosity. Their interest may provide an opportunity to explain for the first time that all living things die and in this way make room for new living things to take their place on earth.

This kind of answer may satisfy for the moment, or it may lead to questions about our own mortality. Honest, unemotional, and simple answers are called for. If we are talking to a very young child, we must remember that she can absorb only limited amounts of information at a time. She may listen seriously to our answers and then skip happily away saying, “Well, I’m never going to die.” We shouldn’t feel compelled to contradict her or think that our efforts have been wasted. We have made it easier for her to come back again when she needs more answers.

Other opportunities to discuss death with children occur when prominent persons die and their deaths, funerals, and the public’s reaction receive a great deal of media coverage. When a death is newsworthy, children are bound to see something about it on television or hear it mentioned on the radio, in school, or in our conversations. In any case, it can rarely be ignored and, in fact, should not be. It is a natural time to give them needed information or to clarify any misconceptions they may have about death.

If the death is violent — a murder or assassination — it is probably a good idea to say something to reassure children about their safety. The media tends to play up violence under ordinary circumstances, and the violent death of a well-known or admired person may stimulate their fears or confirm distorted perceptions they may have about the dangers around them. They may become worried that “bad” people or that the “bad feelings” in people cannot be controlled. They may need to hear that most people act responsibly and do not go around killing each other, even though everyone feels bad or angry at some time.

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Religion, Death & Other Talking Opportunities with Children

J.W. Worden, Ph.D.

J. William Worden, PhD, ABPP is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association and holds academic appointments at Harvard Medical School and the Rosemead Graduate School of Psychology in California. He is also co-principal investigator for Harvard's Child Bereavement Study, based at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is the author of Personal Death Awareness; Children & Grief: When a Parent Dies; and is co-author of Helping Cancer Patients Cope. His book Grief Counseling & Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner, now in its fourth edition, has been translated into 12 languages and is widely used around the world as the standard reference on the subject.

APA Reference
Worden, J. (2020). Religion, Death & Other Talking Opportunities with Children. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 21, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 7 Apr 2020 (Originally: 18 Apr 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 7 Apr 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.