Helping Children Understand Death
It is challenging for even the most loving and mature adults to discuss death with children. All adults, but especially parents who want to shield children from pain. Even as we recognize that children are preparing for life, we must recognize that they are also living in life now. Grief touches them and affects them.
Yet, children do grieve differently than adults. Supporting children of all ages requires sensitivity, tenderness, and a respect for each child’s personality. Here are some suggestions to help children understand death and what it means:
- Use simple words to tell that the death has happened.
• “When someone dies, it means their body no longer works. Their heart stops working and they can't breathe anymore.”
• “None of the parts of the body work. They can't hear, see, smell, talk, or move.”
- Avoid words like “left us,” “gone away,” or “passed on.” The child may think the person is on a trip and will return. Do not hold out any false hope for return.
- Avoid describing death as “going to sleep.” Many young children become fearful of sleeping, night, or bedtime if they hear this expression as an explanation of death.
- Tell how the death happened. Use the medical terms—cancer, heart attack, etc.—to help differentiate between everyday sickness and diseases that cause death.
- Reassure that all their feelings are normal. Encourage the child to express his or her thoughts through words, drawings, and play. Let the child know that adults have these feelings too, and that people who are grieving the same loss often react very differently.
- Tell where the body has been taken and what will be done with the body.
- Give information about who will take care of them. Children have three basic questions.
• Did I cause this illness or death to happen?
• Will this eventually happen to me?
• Who will take care of me now?
- Help kids understand that they are not all powerful. If they say, “I wish you were dead,” assure them it isn't going to come true.
- Try to maintain their routine as much as possible. Children need to feel secure in their home and school, and routine helps.
- Don't hide your tears. Let them know this is a sad time and it's perfectly normal to cry.
- Help them understand that things will get better.
- You may be surprised that children may grieve one minute and comfortably play in the next minute.
Adolescents and young adults experience the death of a close person in ways often different from adults. Teens require a balance of supportive presence and respect for privacy that can be challenging for caring adults to navigate. “Being available to listen without judgment, when I need it” is the request most often heard from grieving teens. As younger children do, teens “take a break” from grief, and this can lead adults to think their teens are “just fine.” Frequent revisits to the feelings and thoughts teens are having are necessary. In the case of a death in the family, parents may be grieving themselves and have less time and energy to devote to the needs of their teen and young-adult children. Teens, perhaps more than children of other ages, may feel the need to be strong for their parents. In the case of the death of a parent, teens are often told that they must now “be an adult,” and may be pushed to accept responsibility beyond their natural, developmental abilities.
Special Considerations by Age Group
Newborns to Age 3
- Can sense changes in routine
- Perceive excitement at home, sadness or anxiety, the presence of new people
- Notice parents being gone at odd times
- Notice that a significant person in their life is missing
- Notice changes in behavior (i.e., crankiness, altered sleep patterns, change in eating habits); if you notice these changes, you can respond more sensitively to their needs
Ages 3 to 6
- Think death is reversible: People will come back from death
- Draw conclusions that may not be accurate
- Wonder: Does this mean someone else is going to die? E.g. “Grandpa died from a headache; Mommy has headaches too” or “Old people die—Daddy is old—Will Daddy die too?” May feel responsible for the death; correct any misconceptions the child may have
- Explain that crying, feeling bad, and feeling angry are all normal.
Ages 6 to 9
- Most understand that death is final, but some might still believe that the dead person will come back
- Need a more detailed explanation; explain the difference between a fatal illness and just being sick (“It's not like when you get a stomach ache or a cold.”)
- Fears of losing a parent may be intensified when a single parent is raising the child.
- May also fear that death will come and take them; may not want to go into a house where someone has died
- Reassure that the emotions they are feeling are normal by sharing how you are feeling.
- Reassure that their thoughts or actions did not cause the death.
Ages 9 to 12
- More aware that death is final; also aware of the impact of death on family security and finances
- Think of death as punishment for bad behavior; may have guilt feelings for avoiding doing things for or with the person who died
- Interested in the biological details of what happened
- Sharing your thoughts and feelings in age-appropriate ways may help children open up about what they are experiencing.
- Are concerned with how to act, what to say, and where they fit in
- Need caring adults to be there to help them through their grief, understand their emotions, and teach them how to act in this crisis
Compassionate Friends is an organization with several Utah chapters focused on families experiencing loss. To find a chapter or resources, visit https://compassionatefriends.org.
The Sharing Place in Salt Lake City is another great resource for children who are grieving. You can find out more at https://thesharingplace.org or by calling 801-466-6730.
The Bradley Center in West Jordan also offers services for children and families who are grieving. Their website is https://bradleycentergrief.org and you can call them at 801-302-0220.