Children and Dealing with Death

For most children, death is a new experience; like any new experience the unknown can be confusing and frightening. Children do not know what to expect following the loss of a family or friend, or even a pet. Young children may not understand what death really means and may be confused or even frightened by the reactions of other family members. In case of traumatic death, the confusion and fear are even greater. Here are some suggestions and ideas of how to talk with young children when those times may arise.

Tips and Suggestions:

    1. Be honest, open and clear. Simple, honest answers are the best. Answer openly and truthfully and in terms they can understand. Try this: “Dead means they aren’t alive. They can’t eat, sleep, move, or feel anything”.
    2. Do not avoid the topic when the child brings it up. Children need to be able to understand what has happened.
    3. Be available, nurturing, reasoning and predictable. Do not put the child off, give them the love they are needing.

Make sure they know you are there for them always.

  1. Understand that the surviving children often feel guilty. Make sure that the child knows that it is not their fault and continue the reassurance if necessary.
  2. Take advantage of other resources, such as your child’s caregiver or teacher, or a mental health program. It’s the parent’s responsibility to make sure the child gets the proper mental help that is needed.

Death is something that is a natural occurrence in everyone’s life and we have to be able to deal with it at a drop of a hat. It’s the parent’s responsibility to be able to help the child deal with death in their own way. It’s a hands-on experience we all have to deal with to be able to understand it.

Death & Children

Young children are often touched by death . . . a grandparent, a pet, a neighbor, a parent, a distant relative . . . someone dies. Death is a difficult concept for children to grasp. They begin to question, develop their own ideas and express their feelings in various ways. Here are some ideas and suggestions that may help when those questions come up.

What is Dead?

  1. Simple, honest answers are the best. Answer openly and truthfully. Children need answers in terms they can understand. Try this: “Dead means they aren’t alive. They can’t eat, sleep, move, or feel anything.”
  2. “Going to sleep” and similar explanations can cause confusion and fear in the child. Will he die if he goes to sleep? If Mom ‘goes away’ on a trip, will she die?
  3. A “dead” state is hard for a young child to comprehend. Never to walk again, never to breathe again is an unchanging state.

Where is __________ now?

  1. What happens to a person when they die can be confusing to a child. Again a simple answer such as “The body is put in a box and then into a hole in the ground in the cemetery. His name will be on a tombstone in the grave.”
  2. Abstract answers, like “he’s gone to heaven” also confuse the child. A child needs answers in terms of what he can see and touch.
  3. Visiting the cemetery is a good idea. This allows the child to understand your answers. It’s also a way of remembering the one who has died.

Why do people die?

  1. A child may ask this after he has thought about death for awhile. “If my grandma died because she ‘got sick’, then I might die too if I get sick.”
  2. You can discuss old age, chronic diseases, and accidents with your child. Reassure him that just because a person “gets sick” doesn’t mean he’ll die.

Other ideas that work

  1. Allow your child to pretend play about death. This is a child’s way of working out fears and answers to questions.
  2. Discuss feelings openly and honestly with your child. Accept and acknowledge his feelings whether negative or positive. Also, talk about how you feel. “I was very sad when grandma died. I miss her a lot. You look sad too.”” A child may need to talk about this often.
  3. Let the child tell a story about the person who has died. Write it down for him.
  4. Visit the cemetery, take flowers, and talk openly and honestly about his death.
  5. Answer questions simply. If and when he wants more detail, he’ll ask more questions.

Death is a natural occurrence in life just as birth is. Remember to let the child learn in his way . . . by seeing, doing and touching.