Talking with Children about Death
How to Talk with a Child about Death
Encourage children to talk openly and express their feelings. Support expression of emotions appropriate to grief and death. Help children deal with their feelings and emotions.
Communicate through touch, such as putting your arm around the child, sitting close to the child, holding the child in your lap or holding the child’s hand. Talk about things the child has experienced or noticed, such as the mother and/or father crying, worried, sad or why the baby didn’t come home from the hospital. Acknowledge and share your feelings with the child.
Encourage and allow the child to ask questions and include adult reality. Tell the child what to expect by explaining death in an understandable manner, simply and honestly. Reinforce the child’s positive memories about the experience. When appropriate, let the child make the decision to attend or not attend the funeral. Children’s books are available to read with them to help them understand their feelings.
Children’s Understanding of Death
The way children understand death changes according to their age. These are some guidelines that may help you explain death to your child. Children may show characteristics of earlier or later stages.
BIRTH TO THREE YEARS OLD
At a few months of age, children may not have any comprehension of death but will sense some of their parents’ stress. A child at approximately two years of age may speak about a deceased pet as ‘no more,’ revealing the beginning of understanding.
Three to four-year-old children fear separation, but think of it as temporary. During play they may pretend that some living thing has died and then bring it back to life. So, they will need an explanation that the body stopped working and won’t start again. Children at this age may also be alarmed by their parents’ grief. They need to be told something such as, “Mommy and Daddy are very sad right now because we miss the baby, but we are going to be okay.”
FOUR TO SIX-YEARS OLD
Children at this age may wonder why people have to die. They may still have a hard time understanding death and may have some wrong ideas. For example, they may think their angry thoughts or jealous feelings may have caused their sibling’s death. In the child’s magic world, wishes and desires can make things happen. They need reassurance that they did nothing to cause the baby to die.
SIX TO NINE-YEARS OLD
At this age children may still think the baby can come back. If they have been taught about Heaven and life after death, they may wonder why they can’t go there and visit and then come back. At around eight or nine years of age, children may think that they did not love the baby enough and that is why he or she died. As children approach nine years of age, they tend to ask more questions about life and death.
NINE TO TWELVE-YEARS OLD
These children can understand that life always ends in death and that death may come earlier than expected. As children approach adolescence, they will want to share their feelings with others and will have many questions.
By about 12 years old, children can understand death as well as an adult, but they are preoccupied with the present, their relationships with their peers and their own identity. The death of a family member will probably come as a confusing shock and will bring deep emotional reactions that the adolescent may not understand.
Children with Unmet Needs May
- Develop physical symptoms
- Fear impending death
- Express anxiety in their behavior
Visible Reactions of Children
- Anxiety attacks
- Running away
- Death phobias
- Separation anxiety
- Sudden outburst of fear and hatred of the mother
- Suicide attempts
- More loving, concerned, cuddly
- More attentive to parents’/siblings’ needs
- Fearful, angry, withdrawn
If any of these negative reactions or behaviors become evident, it is advisable to consult with a professional.