Helping Children Cope with Death

Many factors are involved when speaking to a child about death. The child’s age is important, the language used, being honest, uncomplicated, and understanding your own feelings and conceptions about death. Even with these tough issues it's important to talk with children about death. Not doing so leaves them unprotected from the pain and bewilderment that accompanies this inevitable experience.

Children carry different conceptions of death depending on their developmental age. Preschool age children see death as a reversible and temporary state. Children who are between 5 and 9 years of age understand that death is irreversible. Despite this understanding, they may feel as though they can escape through their own thoughts and actions to “make the person come back.” They may even think the death is their fault. Children above age 9 and into adolescence start to understand that all things die and that they themselves will someday die. Teenagers may develop existential questions about the meaning of life.

Maintaining a non-judgmental line of communications about feelings, memories, etc. with regard to death is important for the child and the adult listener. The following are some useful things to do for grieving children:

  • Reassure them that their basic needs will be met.
  • Reassure them that the death is not their fault.
  • Use clear language. People who die do not “pass away” or “go to sleep”. These terms can be scary to children who pass from grade to grade and can also make sleep confusing. Use the terms death or dying.
  • Allow the child to bid farewell.
  • Allow for free expression of feelings through tears, anger, talking, looking at photographs or mementos, etc.
  • Let your genuine concern and caring show.
  • Be available and be present.
  • Call or write to the family if it feels right.
  • Say you're sorry about what happened and about their pain.
  • Allow the child to express as much or as little grief as they are willing to share at the moment.
  • Talk about special, endearing qualities of the person they have lost.
  • Give attention to surviving siblings.
  • Reassure them that they did everything they could.
  • Share your personal experience if it seems useful and normal.
  • Listen and accept without judgment.
  • Avoid clichés such as, “your family is closer now”, “I know how you feel” (especially if you don’t know), or “think of all the good times”.
  • Acknowledge birthdays, death dates, anniversaries, etc.
  • Remember that grief may take many years to work through.
  • Accept that you cannot make them feel better.

Children who are struggling with grief often give signals to adults through prolonged depression, inability to talk about the deceased, acting out behaviors, etc. Death is especially hard for children if it comes by an act of violence. Psychologists, social workers, and ministers are familiar with such reactions and may be worth turning to for professional counseling or support.

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