Talking to Children about Death—10 Basic Truths

My six-year-old grandson had a profound question for me when his pet goldfish, Bob, died: “Grandma, why did Bob have to die?” It’s a great question. Why death? Even a six-year-old feels that something is “not right” with the world in the loss of one small fish. There is a sense of helplessness and sadness. Why death?

We are living in a broken and fallen world in which death confronts us all, so we shouldn’t avoid the topic, even with children. Flowers die, animals die, pets die, people die—soldiers in wars, neighbors, grandparents, and children. Death is ugly and terribly sad. But even the death of a one little goldfish presents an opportunity that should not be wasted or minimized. It provides a springboard for communicating the necessity and hope of the gospel of Jesus!

The following are 10 basic, biblical truths for talking  children about death, along with a few supporting Scriptures you can read and discuss. Please note that the exact language you use, the number of truths you discuss at one time, and the explanations you provide should vary according to the age of the child and the particular circumstances. (You can download this as a PDF, which also provides an explanation under each point.)

  1. Emphasize that God is the giver of life and sustains every living thing. (Acts 17:24-25; Hebrews 1:3; Revelation 4:11; Psalm 139:16)
  2. Point out that God created people in a special way for a special purpose. (Genesis 1:26-27; Psalm 16:11; Psalm 86:9-12)
  3. Remind them that, “in the beginning”, there was no death. (Genesis 1-2)
  4. Connect death to God’s righteous judgment of man’s sin. (Genesis 3; Habakkuk 1:13a; Romans 1:21; Isaiah 59:2; Romans 6:23a; 2 Thessalonians 1:9a)
  5. Help them understand the enormous scope of death. (Genesis 3:17-18; Romans 5:12; Romans 8:20-22; Matthew 10:29)
  6. Impress upon them our utter helplessness to overcome death through our own means. (Romans 3:20, 23a; Ephesians 2:1; Romans 7:24)
  7. Emphasize that death is a reminder that we desperately need Jesus! (John 14:6; John 3:16-17; Galatians 3:13; Romans 6:9; Acts 4:12; 2 Corinthians 7:10)
  8. Provide assurance that, for everyone who is trusting in Jesus, physical death is a means of entering eternal life with God. (John 5:24; John 6:40; Philippians 3:20; Romans 6:5; 1 Peter 1:3-4)
  9. Encourage them to express an appropriate measure of heartache and point them to finding comfort in Christ. (Psalm 23; Ecclesiastes 3: 1-2a, 4; John 11:32-36; Romans 12:15; 2 Corinthians 1:3-5)
  10. Remind them that Jesus will return and renew His creation—death will be no more! (Matthew 25:31-34, 41; John 14:1-3; Revelation 21:1-5)

In talking with children about these basic truths, some will often express various concerns. One of the most common being,

How do you comfort a child when a loved one dies who outwardly rejected Christ or seemed ambivalent to Christ?

Along with teaching these 10 truths, here are a few things that may help in this situation:

  • Reiterate that every day of his or her life was a gift from a kind and loving God.
  • Point out the sadness of people rejecting the priceless gift that is offered through Jesus. It is right that your child should grieve over unbelief. This may be a valuable means God uses to bring your child to faith. It can also be a means of inspiring him to pray more earnestly for unbelievers.
  • Remind the child of the thief on the cross who trusted in Christ soon before his death.  Ultimately, God decides who are His own, and He is able to call someone to faith at his final breath. 
  • In the end, God can be trusted to do what is right. His judgments are perfect.
  • While expressing heartfelt sorrow, we can give God thanks for the life of this person—remembering the ways in which this person influenced our lives.
  • Encourage your child to tell others about the gospel and the eternal life that Jesus offers.

Another question children often ask is: Do pets go to heaven? John Piper gives a very thoughtful response to that question here