Explaining death to a child is not an easy task, especially when the death was of a close friend or family member. Often with good intent, adults avoid talking about death around children as a form of protection. However, this often creates confusion and difficulty in long-term understanding. Below you will find additional information regarding a child's developmental understanding of death and communication strategies to support your conversations.
Communication Strategies for Explaining Death to a Child
One of the most important strategies in discussing death with children is the way we communicate with them.
- Create a safe place for children to talk and or ask questions.
- Gently but directly, use the words ‘dead’ and ‘died’ within short explanations. Using euphuisms and vague language often creates fear in children. Phrases like “Passed away, gone to sleep, he’s with grandma, lost their life” do not explain in concrete terms that their loved one has died. A child’s fear, for example, could cause them to search for their lost loved one or fear going to bed.
- Before answering any questions, ask the child clarifying questions to get to the root of what they are asking: “Tell me what made you think of that today?”
- Being honest on a level of their developmental understanding. (See more below.)
- Recognize that children will ask for information as they need it; and that they need a balance of communication and play. Giving information in small doses is helpful.
- Identify fears and misconceptions, offer reassurance and provide opportunities to play, create legacy items, and have ongoing talks.
- Remember, you don’t have to have the answers. It is important for the adult to use reflective listening skills and if you don’t know, it is OK to say, "I don’t know the answer to that, but I will try my best to find out."
- Modeling is helpful, and showing the children your emotions helps normalize the range of feelings. Share memories or thoughts out loud with the children. "I wonder what ____ would be thinking right now." "I remember when ____ did ______. It was a good day."
Pitfalls to avoid in communication:
- Having a set agenda.
- Doing all the talking.
- Not allowing silence.
- Focusing on your own emotions or agenda.
- Giving too many medical details.
- Using euphuisms such as “gone to sleep” or "up in the sky."
A Child’s Developmental Understanding of Death
A child’s understanding of death corresponds to their developmental age. The basic information below will hopefully guide your understanding of what is helpful to each stage of awareness.
- Concept of death – will not understand death but will respond to changes in his/her routine that death causes
- Grief response – irritability, respond to emotions of adults and caretakers
- Signs of distress – regression, changes in eating or sleeping patterns
- Possible Interventions – reestablish routine, comfort, touch, hold infant or toddler
Pre-schoolers (ages 3-5)
- Concept of death – “engage in magical thinking,” view death as reversible or temporary
- Grief response – may ask questions about the death over and over again, may reenact death through play
- Signs of distress – regression, bedwetting, separation anxiety, sleep disturbances
- Possible interventions – answer questions honestly, use appropriate language to explain death, participate in “death play” with children
School Age (6-9)
- Concept of death – engage in “magical thinking,” associate death with old age, personify death (such as, a ghost, bogeyman, grim reaper)
- Grief response – may regress emotionally or behaviorally, aggressive behavior (especially in boys), may be curious about death and what causes death
- Signs of distress – regression, nightmares, violent play, tries to take on the role of the person who died
- Possible interventions – give children an opportunity to participate in memory making activities, share stories of person who died, model appropriate grief responses
- Concept of death – understand that death is final and that it will happen to everyone including themselves, view death as punishment
- Grief response – finality of death creates anxiety, fear the death of other people they love, want to know details of how the death happened
- Signs of distress – regression, problems in school, withdraw from friends, extreme weight loss or gain, suicidal thoughts
- Possible interventions – offer constructive “venting” alternatives like sports or exercise, give as much factual information regarding the death as possible
Adolescents (12 and up)
- Concept of death – understand death cognitively, struggle with spiritual beliefs surrounding death, search for meaning behind the death, understand possibility of their own death
- Grief response – may act out, may express that “life is not fair,” may prefer to discuss feeling with their friends, may develop an “existential” response
- Signs of distress – intense anger or guilt, poor school performance, long-term withdraw from friends, opposition/defiance
- Possible interventions – sharing own experiences with loss, explore religious/spiritual beliefs with them