Ages & Stages: Helping Your Child Deal with Death

By D’Arcy Lyness, Ph.D.

It can be difficult to help kids cope with the loss of a loved one, particularly as you work through your own grief. A child’s understanding of death depends largely on his or her age, life experiences and personality.

Explaining Death in a Child’s Terms

Be honest and encourage questions. You may not have all the answers, but an atmosphere of openness lets them know there’s no right or wrong way to feel.

Each child is unique, but here are some rough guidelines to keep in mind.

Until 5 or 6, children’s views of the world are literal. Explain death in basic, concrete terms. If an elderly loved one dies, you might explain the person’s body stopped working and the doctors couldn’t fix it. If someone dies suddenly in an accident, explain what happened and that it caused the person’s body to stop working.

Young kids don’t understand that all things die eventually and we don’t see them as before. A child may still ask where the person is or when he or she will return.

Avoid euphemisms, such as the loved one “went to sleep” or “went away.” Thinking literally, they might be afraid to sleep or when someone goes away.

Kids’ questions may sound deeper than they are. When a 5-year-old asks the whereabouts of someone who died, he or she is probably not asking about an afterlife. It might be enough to hear the person is in the cemetery. This may be a time to share your beliefs about heaven, or an afterlife.

Kids from 6 to 10 start to grasp the finality of death, even if they don’t understand everything dies. They often personify death as a “boogeyman,” ghost or skeleton. They deal best with simple, clear and honest explanations.

Helping Your Child Deal with Death

Mourning the Loss

Is it right to take kids to funerals? It’s appropriate for kids to take part in any mourning ritual—if they want to. Explain what happens at a funeral and ask if they want to go.

Explain the body of the person will be in a casket, and he or she won’t be able to talk or see or hear anything, that others may speak about the person and may be crying.

If you think your own grief might prevent you from helping your child, ask a friend or family member to care for him or her during the service.

Parents should not worry about letting their kids witness their grief over a death. When children see your emotions it makes them more comfortable to share their feelings. It’s important they know that, although you’re sad, you’ll still be able to take care of them.

Getting More Help

Kids need space, understanding and patience as they learn to deal with the process of grief. If there are signs a child needs help, such as radical behavior changes, consult a professional.

Parents can’t shield their kids from sadness. Helping them learn to cope with it builds emotional resources that will last throughout their lives.