How to Approach Death and Grieving

Death, Funerals & Loss

Helping children with autism understand death, funerals, and loss can be challenging due to their unique processing of information. The loss of a loved one can be a complex and emotionally overwhelming experience for anyone, and it becomes even more intricate when considering the diverse beliefs and individual perspectives surrounding death. When explaining these concepts to children with autism, it’s essential to approach it in a sensitive and tailored manner. Here are some strategies to consider:

Serious african american father and son sitting on couch in living room talking and holding hands

Encourage Open Dialogue

Encourage open dialogue and provide a comprehensive explanation when discussing the topic. It's important to address the death of a loved one in detail to prevent any misinterpretations that might be more distressing than the actual reality.

Teen comforting friend, sad girl talking about her problems

Allow Them to Express Their Feelings

Offer clear and multiple opportunities for your child to talk about the situation, allowing them to express their thoughts and feelings. This approach helps prevent misconceptions about the "missing person." For example, your child might mistakenly believe that the person they love has left them because they no longer care.

Parent and child planting tree

Use Social Stories

Consider using social stories to describe events like viewings or funerals. Collaborate with your child's speech therapist or teacher to develop these stories beforehand, so you don't have to create them during the emotionally challenging period. Include important details such as the appearance of the casket, the body, and the fact that people may be crying.

Woman crying at funeral

Prepare in Advance If Possible

When possible, introduce the concept of death before your child experiences the loss of someone very close to them. Take advantage of opportunities like discussing the passing of a co-worker. Let your child observe your genuine emotional responses. If your child is mature enough and capable of handling it, consider allowing them to attend wakes or funerals.

A limenitis arthemis, the red-spotted purple or white admiral butterfly, which is orange and blue

Everyday Examples

Find everyday examples to help your child comprehend the concept of death before they face the loss of a significant loved one. You can use simple instances like finding a dead fly on a window sill or discussing the passing of a famous person mentioned in the newspaper.

A limenitis arthemis, the red-spotted purple or white admiral butterfly, which is orange and blue
Mature father with two small children resting indoors at home, looking at photo album

Avoid Pressuring Them

Help your child understand that even though they can’t physically interact with their loved one anymore, it’s okay to talk about them. Create multiple chances for your child to share their thoughts, feelings, and memories. Share your own thoughts and emotions, look at pictures together, and share stories about the person. Avoid pressuring your child to talk about it; some children take longer to process the absence of their loved one and may want to discuss it at a later time.

Labrador Retriever Dog breed on the field. Dog running on the green grass. Active dog outdoor.

Not Limited to Humans

Explain to your child that grief is not limited to humans alone. We can experience a similar sense of loss and grief when a beloved pet passes away.

Labrador Retriever Dog breed on the field. Dog running on the green grass. Active dog outdoor.
Senior woman lying in hospital bed

Be Straightforward

Since death can be an abstract concept to grasp, especially for individuals who struggle with understanding abstract ideas, try to make the concept of death as concrete as possible. Inform your child that death means the person can no longer breathe, walk, eat, and engage in other activities.

If a family member is terminally ill and their condition is worsening, consider preparing your child for the possibility of their death. Avoid using euphemisms like “going to sleep” or “passing away” as they can confuse individuals who interpret language literally. If your belief system includes Heaven, help your child understand that it’s not a physical location one can travel to like New York. Otherwise, your child might become frustrated, thinking their loved one is simply in a different place without communication or visits.

Crying child boy hugging his knees on sofa

Grieving Processes Are Unique

Explain to your child that different people react differently when someone dies. Some may cry, others may become silent, some may feel the need to talk about the person, while others might choose to express their feelings through writing. Assure your child that there is no right or wrong way to grieve and that they are free to process their emotions in their own way.

Crying child boy hugging his knees on sofa
Hand of parent and child

Offer Reassurance

Reassure your child if they fear losing you after someone close to them dies. Offer reasonable reassurance that you will still be there to take care of them, and remind them that there are other supportive people as well. However, be mindful that seeking reassurance excessively over time may become compulsive or perseverative behavior.

woman with lily flowers and coffin at funeral

Avoid Overprotection

Avoid overly protecting your child from the grieving process. Although it's natural for parents to want to shield their children from sadness and emotional difficulties, if possible, involve them in the funeral process. This can provide them with a concrete experience that aids in their grieving and allows them a final opportunity to say goodbye.


Maintain Consistency

Attempt to keep other aspects of your child's life as consistent as possible. Children with autism often struggle with changes in their anticipated schedules. As soon as feasible, encourage your child to resume their regular activities. This can help reduce overall anxiety, which can compound feelings of loss.

Guide Disclaimer

The information provided in this article is intended for general informational purposes only and should not be considered as professional advice or a substitute for medical, therapeutic, or educational guidance. Every child’s  grieving process is unique, and what works for one child may not work for another. It is essential to consult with qualified professionals, such as doctors, psychologists, therapists, or educators, who can provide individualized recommendations and support tailored to your child’s specific needs.