Article at a Glance
When children lose a loved one, parents play an important role in helping them come to terms with death and grief. Death can be hard to talk about, but it is a natural part of life. Children do better when their parents help them feel safe and allow them to express their feelings.
It is easier to talk about death when it isn’t personal. When your children are little, talk to them about the death of things like plants, bugs, or animals. Don’t get overly complicated, but do candidly answer their questions. For older children, the death of a famous person can also be an excellent opportunity to discuss death.
Death is often a taboo topic of conversation in our society. But if your child is curious about death, use the opportunity to instruct and prepare rather than shut the conversation down. We want to make sure our children feel comfortable coming to us when they have questions.
If you are anticipating the death of a loved one, allow children to see and care for the dying person if they want to, but don’t force it. For children, it can also help to be involved in a meaningful goodbye. It might be tempting to try to shield them from the pain of loss, but the pain will be there no matter what. It is better to help them develop healthy coping skills.
Children may also be worried about what will happen to them after somebody dies. For example, if Grandma watches your child after school, your child might worry about what will happen after her death. Be clear with your children about what changes they can expect and let them know that their needs will be taken care of.
How children perceive death has a lot to do with their age and developmental stage. It is very common for children to experience different stages of grief as they mature. For example, a child who has lost her father at two-years-old is going to feel very differently than she will when she is 18 and her father isn’t there to attend her graduation. It can be painful to dig up old wounds, but your child will need help and a good listener throughout her life.
2-5 Years: Preschool children will often feel loss and will be aware of the grief of those around them, but they don’t understand the permanence or nature of death. They might think it is something that can be reversed. It isn’t uncommon to see your child regress with potty training or to revert to using baby talk.
5-9 Years: Children start to understand that death is permanent, but it is still impersonal. They might think that somehow it won’t ever affect them. They might also personify death as a skeleton or grim reaper—even having nightmares about him. Children might need reassurance that death isn’t their fault or something they could have prevented.
9+ Years: Children will slowly start to understand that all living things must die, including themselves, and that it is not reversible. During this stage, they might start to develop philosophies on life and death.
Children don’t always show immediate grief, but it will come as they mature and are ready to handle those feelings. Their personality will also play a large part in how they express grief. It is not uncommon for a child to be happy and playing one minute and then sad or angry the next.
Death is hard on all of us, but for children it can be especially confusing and scary. Children need to know that they have our permission to talk about death and ask questions. We must show them that we care about their feelings and views. Resist the urge to dismiss feelings and take time to really listen. This is also a great way to learn what your child understands and what they might be struggling with. Avoiding painful things does not protect our children, it only makes it harder for them to tell us how they feel.
Children have short attention spans and can be easily overwhelmed. If you are wondering what kind of information your child is ready for, their questions can be a great indicator. Answer questions honestly and simply—avoid long, overwhelming lectures. Your child doesn’t have to understand everything at once. You will have lots of time to explain things as your child matures.
Allow your children to attend the funeral if they want to, but don’t force them. Be sure to prepare them for what will happen and what they will see. For example, “The funeral is a time to say goodbye to Grandpa and to remember how wonderful he is. Sometimes goodbyes can be hard, so you will probably notice a lot of people crying. It is okay if you cry too. We will sing songs, tell stories about Grandpa, talk, and eat food together. Spending time together and sharing good memories can help us feel better. If you need me, you can come hold my hand or stand by me.”
If there will be an open casket, you will want to tell them that this is one of the ways we say goodbye. Whether or not they go up to the casket should be their choice. Make sure you or somebody else your children trust is open and available for questions during the funeral.
If you are worried about how your child is adjusting after the death of a loved one, talk to your pediatrician. Everybody heals differently and some of us might need a little more help. Your pediatrician can help identify any problems or recommend some good support groups.