Helping Children Cope with Death

Helping Children Cope with Death

In Therapy by debbieconley

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.

  • DO NOT refer to the deceased person as sleeping, unless of course you want your child in bed with you for a long time. Explain to your child that when a person dies, they can no longer feel pain, or breathe, and their heart does not beat. Children are concrete thinkers and need concrete answers softened of course by the knowledge that memories and love last forever.
  • It is up to each parent to decide what religious beliefs if any will be added to the explanation. But remember, they still need and will be wondering about the specifics of the physical part of death.
  • Keep a normal routine. Children need predictability and consistency.
  • Be truthful. It is ok to say we don’t know why some people die that are not “old”. Assure them everything possible was done by the doctors and nurses. Tell them sometimes people don’t get better because a disease (like cancer) becomes too strong to fight.
  • Reassure your child that they will be taken care of. Some children fear their parent may become ill and die. Tell them you are healthy (if you are) and get regular check-ups. Talk to them about all the people in their family that love and care for them.

There are also many wonderful books that help explain death to small children.