Explaining Death to Children
Somewhere in our later childhood, we develop an understanding of death. We begin to realize that it’s not like in the cartoons, where the coyote falls off a cliff, then gets up and walks away. Perhaps we begin to understand when the family loses a beloved pet, or when our parents try to explain why an older relative won’t be around any more.
Death is not easy to explain to young children, but there are many things we can do to help and support young children when a death occurs. First we must realize that children know when something disturbing is happening. During those times, they need our compassionate and concerned support. This may not be easy while we ourselves are grieving, but it is essential to attend to children’s needs during such a difficult time.
Children don’t have the vocabulary to discuss death, so they usually react to it in physical ways. They may develop headaches, upset stomachs, or unusual aches and pains. They often react with thumb-sucking, bed-wetting, or anger and aggression. Or they may avoid the issue entirely, and “pretend” that the deceased has just gone on vacation, or shopping. All of these behaviors are entirely normal.
The way children react to death varies according to their ages, with each age group sensing the occurrence and behaving very differently. How can we best help children understand and deal with death and bereavement? Psychologists agree that there are several things we should and should not do:
- Talk openly with children…and listen to them
- Be available, and open to them
- Be sensitive to the changes and emotions they are experiencing
- Help them find productive outlets for their grief and frustration, such as drawing, music, exercise, or other forms of play
- Don’t try to hide the death from them
- Speak plainly about what has happened. Avoid euphemisms and clichés
- Pay attention to their questions…and answer them
- Note how they behave. Children express themselves through actions
- Maintain discipline
- Include them in whatever funeral rituals or memorial services you plan
- Inform teachers and friends that a death has occurred
Sometimes, children are so deeply affected by grief that you may want to ask for additional help. If the child is depressed for more than a few days, shows no interest in usually pleasurable activities, or has trouble engaging in normal daily routines such as bathing or going to school, you might wish to contact a counselor, physician, clergyman, or mental health professional. Grief is difficult enough for adults, but for children with limited understanding, it is especially painful. Do not be afraid or embarrassed to ask for help.
One of the best things you can do for your child at a time of sorrow is to explain that even though people die, love never does. Remind them that the love they shared with the person who has died will stay with them, strengthen them, and support them throughout their lives. Children can usually understand this one important point: even though we may have lost the person, we never lose the love.
For more information on explaining death to children, visit the Grief Words section of our Grief Support Page for articles by Dr. Alan Wolfelt. We can also recommend support groups, brochures and books to help.