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Children understand and react to death very differently than adults. In many households, the topic of death is not brought up until the loss of someone close to the child occurs — this might be a pet, grandparent, or other relative.

When discussing death with a child, be honest and try to keep it simple. Use terms the child will understand, and allow them to ask any questions they may have. Children tend to understand and process the concept differently depending on their age.

  • Young children up to two years of age have no real understanding of death and may simply see it as abandonment or separation.
  • From the ages of 2-6 years old, it is common for children to see death as temporary or view it as some form of punishment.
  • Between the ages of 6 and 11, children start maturing in their understanding of the finality of death and its causes.
  • After the age of 12, there is a clear understanding of its finality and inevitability.

Children need opportunities to express their emotions in a safe manner. Some of these feelings can include guilt, fear, sadness, and anger. Any and all of them are normal and appropriate reactions to death and loss. Be open to seeking help from a professional for your child or yourself if you are having a difficult time coping with the loss, which makes it harder to help your child through it.

It is important to give an appropriate explanation of death to all children who have experienced loss or who have questions about it. It might be tempting to lie to the child because it is easier than the hard explanation or emotions that may follow. However, when not given an adequate answer, the child is left to fill in any gaps with their own active imaginations. This can conjure up far worse images and beliefs than the truth itself. Choose your words carefully and allow the child to ask any questions and express themselves accordingly. This will give you an accurate assessment of where they are in their understanding and how they are progressing through their own personal grieving process.

Takeaways

  • Children process death differently than adults.
  • Keep explanations of death simple and honest.
  • Allow the child to ask questions and safely express his or her emotions.

References

  1. National Institutes of Health, Medline Plus. Discussing Death with Children.
  2. Kubler-Ross, Elisabeth. On Death and Dying.
  3. Wood, Frances, B. (2008) Grief: Helping Young Children Cope.

Comments

  1. I am glad I came across this article because I have recently been thinking about this since our dogs are getting older. I don’t quite think my four year old fully understands what it means to die and I haven’t really sat down to explain it. I figured I would do this when one of the dogs passes. I dread this moment and hope we have many more years before it happens.

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  2. When talking about death and dying with children keep in mind what they do understand and try to use concepts and terms they already have an awareness of. Keep things simple. If you try to convey too much you will likely create more confusion and possibly instill some anxiety. Adults tend to want to go “deeper” than necessary. Try to only answer the question they are asking. If you don’t know what they need, just explore with them where the question came from and that will likely give you the best insight.

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  3. My daughter is really into medicine (future Bundoo doc?) and created a game called “hospital” where she is a surgeon and tries to save people. The first step involves someone dead and bringing him back to life. It really freaked me out at first (and still does), because I wasn’t sure how to discuss it with her. She asked me the other day what happens when someone dies, and what “killed” means. I was really careful in my choice of words, but I’m really upset at how this question came about… She was at winter camp and a six-year-old told her how fun the game “Minecraft” is and told her about killing zombies. My daughter is four and has no business hearing about Minecraft or zombies or the word ‘kill’ so you can imagine my unhappiness. Even as the discussion about death relates to role-playing and video games, I find myself a bit unconfident in my answers. This article helps and maybe I’ll be better prepared for the next conversation!

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  4. Thanks for this article. Our dog is getting up there in age and I would like him to not be blindsided if she were to go unexpectedly. His godparents dog passed about a month ago and I tried explaining it to him as best I could. He’s been going to children’s church and so I explained to him Taylor went up to heaven to live with Jesus, etc.

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