Chapter 4: Explaining dying and death

The power of language

I've been there
Jean and Omo talk about naming the illness. (3:22)Video transcript
The expert says
Andrea Warnick, children's grief counsellor, talks about using clear and specific language. (3:22)Video transcript

When we told the kids that we lost grandpa last night, our 5-year-old immediately jumped up and started trying to find him.

Adults tend to use euphemisms, or “code words,” to talk about illness, dying and death. They often do this to soften the news they’re sharing. This can be confusing for children in ways that you might not expect. Because their experience of sickness is usually minor like a cold or ear ache, they may not understand the illness is serious. Or they may not understand the person has died and won't move or breath again. 

This table provides suggestions of clear words and phrases to use. 

    Words to use            Words to avoid      
The name of the illness, such as:
  • Cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Sudden Infant Death Syndrome

  • Sick
  • Boo boo
  • Bad back, sore arm, hurt tummy
Passed away
Passed on
Gone to sleep
Grandma's body can't see, hear or feel. Grandma can't see, hear or feel. 
Died from suicide.
Caused his/her own body to die. 
Committed suicide.