Talking to Children about Death

Article | June 2016

Talking to Children 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.

References:
The Dougy Center: National Center for Grieving Children & Families (n.d.) Developmental Responses to Grief. Retrieved May 5, 2021 from https://www.dougy.org/assets/uploads/Developmental_Responses_2017.pdf

Children’s Cancer and Leukaemia Group (CCLG) (n.d.). Children’s ideas and understanding of death. Retrieved May 5, 2021 from https://www.cclg.org.uk/bereavement/childrens-ideas-and-understanding-of-death

The information provided is for educational purposes only. It is not medical advice and is not a substitute for proper medical care provided by a doctor.

Cigna assumes no responsibility for any circumstances arising out of the use, misuse, interpretation or application of the information provided. Individuals are encouraged to consult with their doctor for appropriate examinations, treatment, testing and health care recommendations.