Grief in children
It’s a common myth that children can’t understand the meaning of death. How old a child is at the time of the death is important because a child’s understanding of death changes with age. Preschool children usually think death is short term and reversible. Between the ages of 5 and 9, they understand that the person is gone, but see it more as a separation. After about ages 9 or 10, they begin to understand that death is final.
Children grieve. They just don’t have all the ways to cope that adults do. They often have feelings like sadness, anger, guilt, insecurity, and anxiety, even though they might need help naming these feelings. Children sometimes show anger toward surviving family members. They may start having behavior or discipline problems. They may think the death is their fault, especially if they had once “wished” the person dead or if they were ever angry at the person. Or they may start having nightmares or acting younger than their age. Sometimes they may seem unaffected by the loss and then express their feelings about the death at unexpected moments.
Talking with children about death
It’s hard to comfort others when you are deep in your own grief. Parents may not want to talk to their children about death because they don’t want to upset them. Or they may not want to worsen their own pain. But talking about death will help children deal with their fears.
Children’s responses to death often look very different from adults’. Sometimes a child’s feelings or questions about death may seem inappropriate or upsetting. But it’s important to recognize that they are also trying to understand and accept what has happened. You can help them by listening and showing interest in what they have to say.
Answer whatever questions they may have as openly and honestly as you can. Telling children that someone “went away” or is “sleeping” can lead to confusion and fear. If you tell a small child that sickness caused the death, it’s important to explain that only serious sicknesses cause death. With small children, it may help to talk about dead flowers, insects, or birds, as a way to explain death.
You may want to use the following tips when talking to a child about death:
- Explain what happened in a way they can understand. Children know when you are hiding something, so be honest.
- Assure the child that this is not their fault—they didn’t cause the death.
- Encourage them to talk. Listen and accept their feelings no matter how hard it may be.
- Answer their questions in brief and simple terms. Telling them they are too young to understand only avoids dealing with the problem and might upset them even more. It’s OK not to have all the answers.
- Reassure them that they will still be loved and taken care of. If the child has lost a parent or caretaker, they’ll need very specific information, such as where they will live and who will care for them, to feel safe.
- Show affection, support, and consistency. Let them know that you’ll be there to help as much as possible. Be sure they have people in their lives they can count on.
- Tell them how you feel, using words they’ll understand and in a way that won’t be overwhelming. For example, it’s OK to let them know that you hurt too. If you try to hide your feelings, they may think they shouldn’t share theirs.
If the person who died was a parent, you may also want to read Helping Children When a Family Member Has Cancer: When a Child Has Lost a Parent.
Children and funerals
Years ago, people believed that children should not go to funerals because it would be too hard for them, they were too young to understand, or they would be frightened by other people’s distress. Since then, it’s been learned that this is not true. Often, children have later said they felt betrayed when they couldn’t say good-bye to someone they loved. They felt that their relationship with the person who died was not valued; that death was not a natural part of life, but instead something too frightening to confront; and that other people thought they were emotionally unable to cope.
Attending the funeral helps children understand that death is final. Explain to children that a funeral is the way we say good-bye to the people we love. Depending on their age, attention span, and how much adult supervision they need, children may take part in the funeral or memorial ritual, graveside ceremony, and other gatherings, or only some of them.
If children will be at the funeral, prepare them for what they’ll see and hear. Tell them what to expect. If there will be a viewing with an open casket, the child needs to know that. Depending on how young they are, it might help to talk about what it means to be dead. Explain that people will come to visit with the family and offer their sympathy. Also explain any other routines or rituals that will be followed. If there’s a religious service, describe what will happen there. Tell them if there will be a trip to a cemetery where the casket will be put into the ground and covered up. They should know that they may see people cry, and that it’s OK. They will see the normal expressions of how people feel when they lose someone important to them. Seeing this gives children permission to express their own emotions.
Whatever social ritual may happen afterward should also be explained. Children sometimes have a hard time understanding what looks like a party after services where people looked pretty sad. Explain that people can’t be sad all the time and there will be other times when the sadness will come back. Children also should expect that the sadness we feel when someone has died can last a while, but eases as time goes on.
Children usually want to take part in this ritual with their family. If they seem frightened by what they imagine a funeral to be, they probably have a false impression or misunderstanding about it. It’s a rare child who doesn’t want to be part of something that their whole family is doing, but if they don’t, gently ask the child what they think will happen and what they are worried about. For example, the child may not fully understand the transition from life to death and be afraid that the person is still alive when they are put into the ground. Remind them again what being dead means and that the person as you knew them is no longer here.
Last Medical Review: 12/23/2014
Last Revised: 03/11/2015