When a loved
one dies, it can be difficult to know how to
help kids cope with the loss, particularly as
you work through your own grief.
How much kids
can understand about death depends largely on
their age, life experiences, and personality.
But there are a few important points to remember
in all cases.
Explaining Death in a Child's Terms
Be honest with kids and encourage questions.
This can be hard because you may not have all
of the answers. But it's important to create
an atmosphere of comfort and openness, and send
the message that there's no one right or wrong
way to feel. You might also share any spiritual
beliefs you have about death.
A child's capacity
to understand death — and your approach
to discussing it — will vary according
to the child's age. Each child is unique, but
here are some rough guidelines to keep in mind.
are about 5 or 6 years old, their view of the
world is very literal. So explain the death
in basic and concrete terms. If the loved one
was ill or elderly, for example, you might explain
that the person's body wasn't working anymore
and the doctors couldn't fix it. If someone
dies suddenly, like in an accident, you might
explain what happened — that because of
this very sad event, the person's body stopped
working. You may have to explain that "dying"
or "dead" means that the body stopped
Kids this young
often have a hard time understanding that all
people and living things eventually die, and
that it's final and they won't come back. So
even after you've explained this, kids may continue
to ask where the loved one is or when the person
is returning. As frustrating as this can be,
continue to calmly reiterate that the person
has died and can't come back.
euphemisms, such as telling kids that the loved
one "went away" or "went to sleep"
or even that your family "lost" the
person. Because young kids think so literally,
such phrases might inadvertently make them afraid
to go to sleep or fearful whenever someone goes
that kids' questions may sound much deeper than
they actually are. For example, a 5-year-old
who asks where someone who died is now probably
isn't asking whether there's an afterlife. Rather,
kids might be satisfied hearing that someone
who died is now in the cemetery. This may also
be a time to share your beliefs about an afterlife
or heaven if that is part of your belief system.
Kids from the
ages of about 6 to 10 start to grasp the finality
of death, even if they don't understand that
it will happen to every living thing one day.
A 9-year-old might think, for example, that
by behaving or making a wish, grandma won't
die. Often, kids this age personify death and
think of it as the "boogeyman" or
a ghost or a skeleton. They deal best with death
when given accurate, simple, clear, and honest
explanations about what happened.
As kids mature
into teens, they start to understand that every
human being eventually dies, regardless of grades,
behavior, wishes, or anything they try to do.
As your teen's
understanding about death evolves, questions
may naturally come up about mortality and vulnerability.
For example, if your 16-year-old's friend dies
in a car accident, your teen might be reluctant
to get behind the wheel or even ride in a car
for awhile. The best way to respond is to empathize
about how frightening and sad this accident
was. It's also a good time to remind your teen
about ways to stay safe and healthy, like never
getting in a car with a driver who has been
drinking and always wearing a seatbelt.
tend to search more for meaning in the death
of someone close to them. A teen who asks why
someone had to die probably isn't looking for
literal answers, but starting to explore the
idea of the meaning of life. Teens also tend
to experience some guilt, particularly if one
of their peers died. Whatever your teen is experiencing,
the best thing you can do is to encourage the
expression and sharing of grief.
And if you
need help, many resources — from books
to counselors to community organizations —
can provide guidance. Your efforts will go a
long way in helping your child get through this
difficult time — and through the inevitable
losses and tough times that come later in life.
Is it right to take kids to funerals? It's up
to you and your child. It's appropriate to let
kids take part in any mourning ritual —
if they want to. First explain what happens
at a funeral or memorial and give kids the choice
of whether to go.
What do you
tell a young child about the funeral? You may
want to explain that the body of the person
who died is going to be in a casket, and that
the person won't be able to talk or see or hear
anything. Explain that others may speak about
the person who died and that some mourners may
Share any spiritual
beliefs you have about death and explain the
meaning of the mourning rituals that you and
your family will observe.
If you think
your own grief might prevent you from helping
your child at this difficult time, ask a friend
or family member to care for and focus on your
child during the service. Choose someone you
both like and trust who won't mind leaving the
funeral if your child wants to go.
worry about letting their kids witness their
own grief, pain, and tears about a death. Don't
— allowing your child to see your pain
shows that crying is a natural reaction to emotional
pain and loss. And it can make kids more comfortable
sharing their feelings. But it's also important
to convey that no matter how sad you may feel,
you'll still be able to care for your family
and make your child feel safe.
As kids learn how to deal with death, they need
space, understanding, and patience to grieve
in their own way.
not show grief as an adult would. A young child
might not cry or might react to the news by
acting out or becoming hyperactive. A teen might
act annoyed and might feel more comfortable
confiding in peers. Whatever their reaction,
don't take it personally. Remember that learning
how to deal with grief is like coping with other
physical, mental, and emotional tasks —
it's a process.
watch for any signs that kids need help coping
with a loss. If a child's behavior changes radically
— for example, a gregarious and easygoing
child becomes angry, withdrawn, or extremely
anxious; or goes from having straight A's to
D's in school — seek help.
A doctor, school
guidance counselor, or mental health organization
can provide assistance and recommendations.
Also look for books, websites, support groups,
and other resources that help people manage
always shield kids from sadness and losses.
But helping them learn to cope with them builds
emotional resources they can rely on throughout
by: D'Arcy Lyness, Ph.D
Date reviewed: November 2009
Originally reviewed by: Dale Perkel, LCSW