Understanding Death as a Child
As a young child, I remember encountering death on a rather regular basis. While digging in the backyard, I’d come across a smushed, dead bug. I’d see dead leaves fall off trees. Snuggled up watching TV, my eyes would widen as a cartoon character fell off a cliff and lay flattened on the ground. Yet, my concept of death was still vague. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. This couldn’t happen to me or someone I loved. It wasn’t permanent. Then, my best friend’s grandmother died. I sat by her side as she held my hand and cried. I saw her tearful family members. “Okay, so death is sad,” I remember thinking to myself. I overheard talk about “never seeing her grandmother again,” and I felt stumped. “So, people don’t come back?”
Death is a complicated, heavy topic even for adults to digest. For children, it is all the more confusing. It is our responsibility as adults to educate children about death and help them process, cope with, and heal in the healthiest ways. We’ve compiled the latest research and best practices to help you guide your child through this.
Can you remember your first experience losing a loved one when you were young? How you felt? How you found out? What made you feel better? More than likely, your understanding and experience of death has changed and become more complex the older you’ve gotten. The challenge is bridging the gap between an adult’s painful understanding of loss and helping children understand what has happened. There isn’t one clear answer, unfortunately, since children’s age and development play a big part in what they are capable of comprehending. Yet, with some simple guidance and forethought, this is a topic you can absolutely handle with grace!
Self-Care and Managing Your Own Grief
Before you can calmly talk to your child about death, it is important that your head and heart are in a stable place. By taking the time to take care of yourself and manage your own grief, you are ultimately modeling healthy behaviors for your children that they may then use for themselves. We are not suggesting avoiding telling your children for a long time (as they will most likely be able to pick up on the fact that something is going on), but instead that it may be hard to have a conversation with a child if you are unable to calmly and coherently speak. Take a few minutes or hours to gather your thoughts and feelings before diving into the conversation.
Resources for Grieving While Parenting
Child Development & Expectations
Studies show that children go through different stages in their understanding of death. Read below to see these stages broken up by age.
|3-4 years old||- See death as reversible, temporary, and impersonal. Watching cartoon characters on television miraculously recover after being crushed reinforces this.
- Have “magical” explanations for events, rather than logical ones. They often repeatedly ask about dead relatives or pets.
- Understand illness in terms of contagion. Depending on the situation, children of this age therefore often need reassurance that they cannot “catch” a sick family member’s illness. It can also be helpful to ease a child’s anxiety about sickness to point out that most illnesses are not serious.
|5-9 years old||- 5 and 6 year olds still often have magical explanations for death
- Beginning to realize that death is permanent and all living things die
- Still do not see death as personal and believe they can escape it
- Often personify death, associating it with a skeleton or angel of death. This may cause nightmares
- Will not necessarily grieve in the same way as adults. May appear happy and normal at times and then angry at other times, rather than sad.
- May go through phases of grieving, appearing to have moved on at one point and then suddenly showing sadness or fear.
|10 years old - adolescence||- Understand that they, too, will die someday
- Might begin to develop philosophical views of life and death
- Seek the meaning of life (particularly teenagers)
- React to fear of death by taking dangerous, unnecessary chances with their lives
Link to Research Used in This Table
What You Might See as a Reaction from Your Child
Children are unique in how they may process and react to the news of a loved one dying. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. You may see very little reaction at all, anger, crying, or even guilt that it is somehow their fault. What is important is to give your children space to feel these feelings and validate their experience, reassuring them of their safety. Be prepared for a range of questions that may seem odd or insensitive to you; this is a child’s curiosity in action!
Possible Questions from Your Child…
- Where does a dead person go?
- Will I see them again?
- How does someone die?
- How do you know when you’re going to die?
- Can dead people breathe underground or feel hunger? (younger children)
- What do I do if I miss someone who has died?
- Do people who have died come back to visit? (ghosts?)
You Might Also See …
- Very little reaction (can be seen as insensitivity) and ready to move on
- Guilt (somehow a death was their fault)
- Behavior changes
- Asking lots of questions
- Crying (it’s okay to cry together)
Things to Consider
|Children are aware of death long before we realize it||- Children see dead insects and dead animals lying by the road.
- Children encounter the concept of death in television, video games, and fairy tales.
- Children act out death when playing.
- Death is a part of day to day life and children are aware of it, even if they don’t understand it.
|If possible, bring up the topic of death with your child before a death has happened||- If we allow children to talk to us about death, then we can provide them with factual information, comfort them, and prepare them for any upcoming deaths they will encounter.
- Talking to your child about death will gradually adjust your child to the topic and address any questions or concerns your child may already have about death.
- You do not need to wait for your child to ask you about death. You can bring up the topic yourself. You might use a dead insect or death in a cartoon to bring up the topic in a calm, natural way.
|Consider teaching your child that people have different beliefs about death||- This will help children cope if classmates and friends challenge their beliefs. It also encourages children to be open-minded and accepting of others.|
|Speak directly with your child about the death of a loved one, rather than avoiding the topic||- When adults avoid talking about something upsetting, children often hesitate to bring up the topic or ask questions, even if they want to.
- In the study, "What Do We Tell the Children? Understanding Childhood Grief" by the Western Journal of Medicine, research shows, "Applications of Piaget's work have found that even preverbal children can tell from the distress of the adults around them that something terrible has happened and are aware of the absence of a loved person. Thus, not telling a young child about the death of a parent only serves to prevent discussion of what is uppermost in everyone's minds, rather than protecting the child from pain, as intended."
|Reassure children of their safety and support network||- For a grieving child, you can list all the adults who are there to support the child. Possibilities might include teachers, grief counselors, coaches, therapists, parents, grandparents, family friends, etc.
- Research from the Western Journal of Medicine shows, “Communication, sharing, and having a supportive family are related to positive long-term adjustment to bereavement.”
|Maintain your child’s usual routine and activities, such as going to school||- This helps children feel secure and safe by providing them with some normalcy, rather than feeling that their whole world has changed.|
|Be careful generalizing about illness or old age||- Saying, “people die when they are old” or “people die when they are sick” might confuse children, because some old people are healthy and some sick people recover. Not to mention, people can die from other causes, like accidents.|
|Use the words died, dead, and death||- Using more abstract terms like “passed away,” “left us,” or “moved on” are confusing to children. Children might interpret these terms as the person leaving on a trip.|
|Let your child decide if he/she wants to attend the funeral||- Let children participate in the decision of whether they should attend the funeral. If they decide to attend, designate someone to be with the child to offer support and to leave with the child if needed.
- If your child chooses to attend the funeral, give clear and simple details of what the day will include (such as what the room will look like, what will happen throughout the service and day, who will be there, how people might be crying, etc.).
|Answer children’s questions about death as simply and consistently as possible||- By doing so, you will offer your child clarity and security. This will build trust with your child.
- Explain in age-appropriate, simple terms that a dead person’s body can’t do the things it used to do: breathe, heart beating, etc.
|Reassure children that a death that occurred is not their fault||- This is especially important if the death involved an accident that the child may have seen or been a part of.
- You might say, “Sometimes terrible accidents happen. There’s nothing anyone could have done to change what happened.”
|Show children that you and your family members are also sad||- Explain why you are sad, so children know that the death made you sad, rather than something they said or did.
- When you model sad feelings and behaviors, children learn that “it’s okay to be sad.”
- Teach your children that people show sadness in different ways (such as crying or wanting alone time).
- Children can feel less isolated when adult family members who are also grieving share stories and photos of the deceased.
|Revisit talking about the loss over the years||- Studies show, children benefit from talking about the loss over the years so they can reinterpret it as they mature.|
Links to Research and Resources Used in This Table
- “Understanding Childhood Grief,” Western Journal of Medicine
- “Clinical Grief Activities for Working With Bereaved Children,” Providence Hospice of Seattle
Suggested Activities: Help Your Child Cope with a Death
- Make a paint handprint and mark the date the person died, the name of the person who died, the name of the child who made the handprint, and the age of the child. This will serve to memorialize the person who died. You might place the handprint somewhere in or around the house.
- Write a letter saying all that you wish you could say to the person who has died
- Write a poem or story all about memories you have of the person
- Decorate a memory candle and light it when you want to think of that person
Good for All Ages:
- Use art to express feelings: draw or paint a picture of how this death makes you feel
- Create a ritual to commemorate the deceased – share memories, gather belongings that remind the child of this person
- Look at scrapbook pictures or videos of the deceased – or make a scrapbook or box of pictures and things that remind you of that person
- Press flowers from the funeral in a book
- Deep breathing exercises for kids – check out this link for a guided video
- With the child, make a list or poster of all the adults who are here to help the child — parents, grandparents, teachers, doctor, psychologist, grief counselor, coaches, etc.
- With the child, write out a sentence the child can use to bring up the topic with an adult. “I need/want to talk about __________.” or “I feel sad/mad/scared about __________.”
Link to Play Therapy for Grief
Seek Support from Professionals
- Psychology Today – Find a Grief Counselor
- National Alliance for Grieving Children – Find a Grief Counselor
Recommended Picture Books
Ages 3- 6:
- “I Miss You: A First Look at Death” by Pat Thomas
- “Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children” by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen
- “Sad Isn’t Bad: A Good-Grief Guidebook for Kids Dealing with Loss” by Michaelene Mundy
- “The Dead Bird” by Margaret Wise Brown
- “When Bad Things Happen: A Guide to Help Kids Cope” by Ted O’Neal
“When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death” by Laurie Krasny Brown
- “When Someone You Love Has Cancer: A Guide to Help Kids Cope” by Alaric Lewis
Ages 6 – 12:
- “Badger’s Parting Gifts” by Susan Varley
- “The Invisible String” by Patrice Karst
- “The Memory String” by Eve Bunting
- “Ocho Loved Flowers” by Anne Fontaine
- “Rachel and the Upside Down Heart” by Eileen Douglas
- “Tough Boris” by Mem Fox
- “The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story of Life for All Ages” by Leo Buscaglia
- “The Tenth Good Thing About Barney” by Judith Viorst
- “The Memory Box: A Book About Grief” by Joanna Rowland