Death is a normal but difficult fact of life, yet many parents struggle with discussing the subject with their children. However, death touches everyone, whether it’s the loss of a pet, classmate or family member, or death on a local or national scale. Parents should consider the age of their young child and approach the subject accordingly, increasing the amount of information for older children.
No matter their age, children will likely have questions, either when you are discussing death or after they have had some time to process it. Encourage open conversation. Your child may lash out in grief. Explain why he or she is feeling so upset to help verbalize emotions. Younger children might regress, reverting back to comforting behaviors to cope, and they may remain in this phase for several months. Talk to your pediatrician if the behavior lasts longer, and seek professional help if your child exhibits long-term or harmful signs.
You can bring up religious beliefs as appropriate for the situation and age of the child, and remember that age-appropriate books, such as those found at this site, can also provide understanding. The following ideas will provide suggestions on how to talk with children about death.
Age 0 to 3
Since toddlers and younger children feel the sad emotions swirling around them when a death occurs, addressing concrete bodily functions can help young children grasp the concept that life has ended. Explain to them the person or animal does not breathe, eat or think any longer. Parents and caregivers should take the time to reassure children of this age by cuddling, holding and rocking them. Reassure them of your presence and your love, and remember to exercise patience because they may not understand the surrounding turmoil.
Age 4 to 6
Preschoolers struggle with understanding the difference between reality and fantasy. They likely do not grasp the permanency of death and might think the person is coming back, and they might also think they did something wrong that caused the person to die. You will need to explain that his or her behavior did not result in the person’s death. Use concrete language, including the word "die," as opposed to saying the person is "asleep." As another option, you can say the person stopped breathing or that his or her body quit working and the doctors cannot fix the problem. However, the child might keep asking when the person is coming back, since he or she does not understand that death is permanent. Continue to calmly repeat that the person cannot come back.
If you are the child’s caregiver, keep in mind he or she might be worried you will die and will not be there to provide care. However, he or she might not know how to express concerns and might ask questions that don’t make sense. Reassure him or her that you plan to provide care, but other people can help should something happen.
Age 7 to 9
Between the ages of seven and nine, children think that pets and old people die, and they might not understand it when someone younger passes away. Children might think death relates to spirits or ghosts, depending on the type of television they watch, and they might believe death is contagious and wonder if they will die soon as well, especially if they lose a close family member.
You can help children cope by explaining to them that death is not necessarily like television, especially cartoons. Remember, they will understand that the heart might stop working or that lungs stop breathing, so use scientific language when explaining death. Comfort them as well, and allow them to express their grief.
Age 10 to 12
Middle-school children realize that death is permanent, and they even know that they will die at some point. They also understand that death results in sadness and will likely respond with common adult emotions, including sadness, fear and anger. They will ask questions about sickness, accidents and death.
At this age, provide them with facts, and give them outlets so that they can talk about their feelings, whether in a support group or with a counselor. Sticking to a routine helps them feel safe, so they should not miss more than a week of school.
Age 13 to 15
Young teens are beginning to seek out their own identity, and death confuses them even further as they try to cope with thoughts of the future. They feel vulnerable and can act out or even withdraw, and since their emotions are already in a turmoil, the death of a loved one can cause them to bounce from one extreme to another. Offer your support, reassuring them the intense grief will not last forever.
Age 16 to 18
Teens have a better overall grasp of death, even if they have no previous experience with it. They might feel more comfortable talking to their friends than sharing with parents; however, they still look to parents and other involved adults to validate their information.
If they are close to a parent, sibling or friend who is dying, they will likely want to spend time with him or her and offer support where possible. They might want to help in tangible ways, such as joining a walk for cancer or volunteering at a children’s hospital, but they might also express fear surrounding a car accident or other event that lead to an unexpected death. At this point, reinforce staying safe behind the wheel, such as the importance of not texting and driving.
Although discussing death with children seems difficult, approaching the topic from a calm perspective can help children cope with loss. Addressing curiosity and questions with respect to the child’s age can help children develop a healthy view of death and dying.