Recently, in the midst of this beautiful summer, there have been several families that have been coping with the loss of young family members. None of us live forever, but most of us expect to live a long life. When or if we have the opportunity to discuss death with our children, we usually say something like, “When people get old and their bodies don’t work well anymore, they die”. But what if this is not what happens? We are all thrown off kilter when life throws us a curve ball and doesn’t follow the normal sequence. It is difficult enough for adults to deal with the loss of a young person, but is more difficult for children. How do we deal with our own grief and help them as well?
How a child views and understands death will depend on the child’s developmental level. Keep in mind children can overlap can overlap among age groups in their understanding of death because they move from one developmental stage to another at different rates.
In general, here is what the concept of death is like for a child 4 to 7 years old. Children at this age view death as reversible and temporary. They may not verbalize this, but that is what they are thinking in their heads. They may also view death as something they caused, or as their fault as outlandish as that sounds to adults. They may think about the time they told a parent “I hate you” or “ I wish you would go away”, when they were angry. They may think their thoughts or words caused the person’s death. This is a type of “magical thinking” that comes from children at this age. They believe everything revolves around them and that they can control their environment.
What does a grief response look like at this age?
Children at this age may repeatedly look for the parent that dies or want to continually watch home videos or look at pictures of the person that passed away. Sometimes, depending on how close the child was to the deceased (a parent, sibling, or grandparent), children will shut down and not want to discuss it or hear the person’s name mentioned. Other times they will act like nothing has happened and continue to play like it is a regular day. All of these are normal reactions.
Sometimes children’s behavior will regress. You may see a return to bedwetting, thumb sucking, baby talk, or a need to be close to the surviving parent continually.
Children at this age may ask questions such as “What happens to your body when you die?” Where is heaven?” They may not understand cremation or burial. In earlier times, death was a part of life. Families held wakes in their homes. Children participated in funeral rituals. We have sanitized death so to speak. Up until the 1900’s, families cared and dressed their own family member that dies and wakes were held in the Family Parlor of the home. This is no longer the case.
The following are some tips to help you talk with your child about death. They will take their cue from you. If you are approachable and comfortable with the topic, your child will sense that and know this is an OK subject to discuss with you.
There are also many wonderful books that help explain death to small children.