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5 Tips for Explaining Overdose Deaths to Our Children

The paramedics loaded the gurney onto the ambulance and shut the doors. As they drove away with her mother, six-year-old Cassie looked up at her grandma. “When will Mom get to come home, Grammie?” she asked. “Are they going to give her medicine to wake her up?”

Cassie’s mom wasn’t going to wake up. Her two-year battle with addiction was over; she fatally overdosed on heroin. After months of painkiller misuse, the young mother switched to a more-affordable option. Today, she took too much; the emergency crew could not revive her.

Now, Cassie’s grandma faced the heart-wrenching task of explaining to her granddaughter that her mother would never be coming home. The question is…how?

The Talk

There’s no quick fix for this conversation. It’s going to be tough. But, it has to happen. And, it won’t be over with one talk. Multiple conversations, interactions and attempts to process this tragic event are necessary.

While it won’t be easy, it is helpful to keep a few things in mind when speaking to a child about a loved one’s drug-related death.

Tip #1   Tell Them the Truth

A parent and child at the funeral holding hands consoling each other in view. A parent trying to explain the overdose death to children.

Do not lie to your child. Hiding the truth about the cause of death will result in more pain later. They will eventually uncover the truth and will be hurt that you lied to them. That betrayal can cause additional negative feelings and potential issues with trusting others in the future.

Tip #2   Help Them Understand in Simple Terms

Often, children are unaware of what’s been going on with their loved one. They may not realize their family member was addicted, or they might not have a good understanding of addiction. Explain to your child that their loved one used more of the substance than their body could handle, and this caused his/her body to stop working.

If the overdose was due to prescription drugs, explain that they “used more of their medication than the doctor prescribed or safe to use.” Gently let the child know their loved one suffered from something called addiction, a chronic disease that often ends in death.

Tip #3   Answer Their Questions

How much information you provide your child is determined by their age and understanding of the situation. Keep it simple and short, then provide additional information as they ask questions. (And let them know it’s okay to ask questions.) A good rule of thumb is: “If the children are old enough to ask questions, they are old enough to hear the answers.”

Tip #4   Give Them an Explanation They Can Share

Most children need assistance with putting together a simple explanation of what happened to their loved one. They need to be able to relate their family member’s death, both to themselves and to others.

For a child-friendly definition of addiction, you can use the following, as recommended by Our House Grief Support Center: “An invisible disease that causes a person to use more (alcohol, medicine or drugs) than is safe and that can end in death.”

A few child-friendly explanations might include:

  • After drinking alcohol for a long time, her liver was no longer working the way it should – that’s what caused her to die. 
  • She died from taking too many drugs.
  • She died from an accidental overdose and the drugs caused her to stop breathing.

Tip #5   Reach Out for Additional Support

Grief support groups and bereavement camps are generally available for children of all ages. If a child you love has lost a loved one to drug addiction, find additional grief support here.