Helping Your Child Deal With Death

Helping Your Child Deal With Death

Helping Your Child Deal With Death

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.

  • Until kids 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 working.

  • 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.
  • Also remember 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.

  • Teens also 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.

Tips to Help:

Death/Dying/Dead

1. Use the words death, dying, dead. This may seem harsh, but it is very necessary to help kids delineate that death is a very different state than any other.

Avoid Euphemisms

2. Avoid euphemisms: She's sleeping (may induce sleep difficulties and fears), he went on a long trip (when is he coming back?), we "lost" grandpa (when will we find him again?), grandma's gone away for awhile, etc.

Terminal Illnesses

3. Explain to children that doctor's almost always can help us feel better (sore throats, headaches, stomachaces, illnesses), but sometimes a body is so, so, so sick, that the doctor's cannot help. In those cases, the doctors have good medicine to help our loved one be comfortable and out of pain, but they cannot keep our loved person alive.

Prepare Them

4. If a child is to attend a wake or funeral for the first time, prepare them for what they will see, hear, experience. Explain what a casket is, that the deceased will no longer be able to talk, breathe, eat or feel pain. That there may be many emotions and tears. It is okay when people cry because they are sad. They miss the loved one. Crying gets the sad out.

Sudden Death/Terminal Illness/Suicide

The death of a loved one may be expected (due to a terminal illness) or unexpected (due to a sudden death, accident or suicide). Helping to explain death to children, as well as deal with the circumstances surrounding the death can be very challenging for parents.  

Getting More Help

As kids learn how to deal with death, they need space, understanding, and patience to grieve in their own way. They might 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.

Nevertheless, 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 counselor, or mental health organization can provide assistance and recommendations. Also look for books, websites, support groups, and other resources that help people manage grief.

Parents can't always shield kids from sadness and losses. But helping them learn to cope with them builds emotional resources they can rely on throughout life.

***Information from Kidlutions “Solutions for Kids”