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How to Talk to Kids About Death

If you are concerned about talking about death with your child, you are not alone. Many of us struggle with the topic of death, especially with children. But it’s a fact of life we all must learn how to process. By talking to our children about death, we can learn how they understand death, what they know, and what they do not know. We can help them with any fears or worries they have and provide reassurance and comfort.

What we say to children about death depends on their age, their experiences and how they see the world. It will also depend on your beliefs (spiritual), feelings, cultural background, the situation, and your relationship to the deceased. It may be someone close to you, someone in the community, or death due to an event that gets media exposure. Each situation will be different.

This is a general guide to help you understand how to approach the subject of death with children of different ages. When explaining death, it is important to take into account a child’s capacity to understand the concept.

General communication cautions

Be aware that you communicate a great deal even without speaking. Children are keen observers of the environment and are quick to pick up on the emotional climate. They watch our faces, see how we hold ourselves, and cue on our tone of voice. They are experts at figuring out how we are feeling.

Avoiding the topic may not be best. If we, as adults, avoid talking about something children will hesitate to bring up the subject or ask questions. They will usually get information from other, less reliable sources.

Choose your words with care. While spiritual and religious beliefs can be a source of strength, if they have not played a role in your lives before the event, children may be frightened by some of the concepts. What you find comforting may actually scare your children. Consider how a child might hear and interpret what you are saying. Avoid saying, “sleeping peacefully,” “lost,” or “passed away.” Reinforce that death happens to everyone, every living thing.

Monitor what they hear. Limit exposure to media accounts for your children and yourself. The continual exposure and intensity of the media message can make the situation even more stressful.

Listen carefully. Try to find out what your child knows and understand about the situation before responding to their questions. Talking to your children about their worries and concerns is the first step to help them feel safe and begin to cope with the events which have occurred. What you talk about and how you say it will depend on their age, but all children need to know you are available and will listen to them.

Grief and developmental stages

How children understand death and express grief differs as they develop, as does how we can help. We indicate how children of different ages may understand and respond to a death and how you can support them below.

Infancy to 2 years

Understanding of death

Not yet able to understand death

Able to react to separation and tension

Pick up on feelings of grief

How they may react and show grief

May change eating and sleeping habits

May be unusually quiet or cranky

How to help

Keep environment calm

Be aware of your tension

Get support to cope

Stick to routines

Have a consistent caregiver

May need to give extra holding, comfort, closeness and reassurance in a calm tone

3-6 years

Understanding of death

Death is like sleeping, considered reversible

The dead can think, feel, know, but they do it somewhere else

May worry that the dead will miss them

Believe that only old people die

Death may be punishment for bad behavior/thoughts

How they may react and show grief

They may stop talking and feel overall distress.

Ask many questions - (Where did they go? When are they coming back?)

Changes in eating, sleeping, and bladder, or bowel control

Show fear of being left alone, have nightmares

Tantrums

Magical thinking – they have faith in magic and the power to make things appear or disappear at will

May think they did something to cause the death

May fear they will die if they go to sleep

How to help

Describe death in simple, clear language

Follow their lead in terms of how much information to give

Ask them if they have any questions; be prepared to answer the same questions over and over

Never equate sleep with death

Talk about what happens to the body when it dies– i.e. the heart stops beating, breath stops flowing, the body doesn’t move or feel pain anymore and the person will not “wake” up

Reassure them that they did not cause the death

Try to have a consistent caregiver

If the child is going to a funeral, prepare them in simple detail about what happens at these events

If physical problems go on, talk to your doctor

It’s okay to let your child know you’re sad, but shield them from intense grieving

6-9 Years

Understanding of death

Death is no longer thought of as reversible

Know death is final and that may be frightening

Believe that only old people die

Don’t believe it can happen to them

Aren’t clear on cause and effect, may blame themselves when bad things happen

Death is thought of as a person or spirit – a skeleton, ghost, monster or bogeyman

How they may react and show grief

Intense interest and curiosity about death

Have many specific questions

Acting out, physical aggression (especially boys) Develop learning problems or fear of school Worry about their own health

Develop symptoms of imaginary illness

May withdraw or become overly attached, clingy

How to help

Don’t use confusing terms such as “lost,” “passed on,” or “sleeping peacefully”

Answer questions honestly with direct language

It is okay to say you don’t have answers

Share your own feelings

Tell them that they are safe

Share good memories of the deceased

Encourage them to draw, write a poem, or create an art piece about their feelings

Allow children to participate in memorial ceremonies

Alert teachers about death and any issues

9-12 years

Understanding of death

Understands that everyone dies and they will too

Death is final and cannot be changed

Have seen media accounts of violence

Fear their own death and burial

May still have some magical thinking

How they may react and show grief

Mood swings, strong emotions, possibly including guilt or anger; they may be ashamed of being emotional

Increased anxiety about their own death

Act like it doesn’t bother them, partly because they fear being rejected if different from peers

Changes to eating and sleeping patterns

May show younger or impulsive behaviors

How to help

Encourage them to show emotions, even if it is anger. It may be helpful to set aside time to talk about feelings.

Remember they are still children and need comfort and support

Offer factual details about what happened; children of this age need information to feel in control and process what is happening

You might wish to give your child something that belonged to the person who died as a way of remembering and memorializing them

Support a return to normal activities

Adolescents

Understanding of death

Similar to that of an adult, but teens tend to deny that death can happen to them

Can become something that isn’t discussed

How they may react and show grief

May respond in unexpected ways, such as acting as if everything is all right and they are fine, or that the death has interrupted their life

Tend to turn away from family and look to friends for support

May be unsure of how to handle their emotions

May withdraw, be angry, or irritable

May have questions about the meaning of life and death and their own vulnerability

Can feel guilty, especially if the deceased was close

How to help

Don’t wait for them to come to you, approach them.

Share your own fears and concerns and ask them to share theirs with you.

Support involvement in activities that allow them to help others – volunteer opportunities, for example.

Encourage a return to regular routines

Be available to them as a family, but allow time with friends

Remember that even though they seem independent, they still need your support

Be careful not to lean too heavily on them

Children and the grief process

Children, like adults, need to grieve and work through loss. But they may do this in ways that don’t look like sadness or grieving to an adult. Children may:

Appear to show grief only briefly. They may be sad one minute and happily laughing with friends the next. Parents may mistakenly believe that the child didn’t understand what happened or that it didn’t affect them. More likely, this is due to the fact that young children don’t feel strong emotions for long periods of time. This protects them from what might be too much to handle at any one time.

Seem more resilient than adults. Some children are able to go back to a normal routine, such as school and activities, almost immediately after a death. This may be a natural protective reaction. By focusing on parts of life that are not changing, life can seem more stable. This doesn’t mean that they have stopped needing comfort and nurturing.

Use games as a way of expressing and working through their feelings. It can be unsettling for adults, but children often play games about death as a safe way of expressing and working through emotions and fears.

Be very talkative about death and have many questions about what happened. They may bring up the topic with anyone who is around them, even strangers, to see how they react. This gives them information on how they should respond.

Act in ways that are unusual for them. When lacking developmental skills, behavior may be the only way that a child can communicate feelings such as anger, worry, or sadness. Activity levels may go up. They may start sleeping poorly. You may see school performance drop. Small children might go back to younger behaviors –bathroom issues or needing a pacifier again. You may see one behavior or emotion one day and something completely different the next. The important thing is to understand and react to the reason way your child is behaving in this way, not just the behavior.

Continue to feel the effects even years later. Times of separation, such as returning to school, sleepovers or going to camp may trigger feelings of loss and fear. Even as young adults, important life event, such as graduating or marriage, can lead to intense sadness knowing that a loved one won’t be there.

You can’t “fix” this for your child. You can keep giving them emotional support, comfort and understanding as they weave the reality of this death into their life.