Many parents are concerned about discussing death with their children. They try to avoid the topic and some have said it’s one of their most feared topics to discuss with their children. Yet, death is a fact of life and if we aim to help our children cope, we must let them know it is okay to talk about it. Your efforts will help your child through this difficult time and through the inevitable losses and tough times that will come later in their lives. The death of a pet is often a child’s first experience with death. For information about talking with your kids about this, click here.
How Children Understand Death at Various Ages:
Kids’ understanding about death depends on their age, life experiences, and personality.
Preschooler’s Understanding of Death
Preschoolers see death as reversible, temporary, and impersonal. They may see cartoon characters brush themselves off after being crushed or blown up and these images reinforce this notion. Kids at this age have a difficult time understanding that that all living things die and can’t come back.
5-9 Year Old’s Understanding of Death
Five to nine year-olds typically begin to realize the finality of death and that all living things die, but they do not see death as relating to them directly. They have magical thinking that somehow they can escape death. They also tend to visualize death as being a skeleton, the angel of death, the grim reaper, etc. Some children have nightmares about these personifications of death.
9-10 Year Old’s Understanding of Death
Nine or ten year-olds through teens begin to understand that death is irreversible, that all living things die, and that even they will die some day. Teenagers often become intrigued with finding out the meaning of life and search for meaning in the death. When teens ask why someone had to die, they are not looking for literal answers, but rather are trying to understand.
Remember, children develop at individual rates and have their own personal ways of managing their emotions.
10 Tips on Explaining Death to Children
- Be honest with them and encourage their questions and expressions of emotions. It is important that kids know they can talk about it (even if you don’t have all the answers) and be sad, angry, scared, or whatever emotions they feel.
- It is usually easier to talk about death when we are less emotionally involved. Children are exposed to mortality at a very young age: from dead flowers, trees, insects, or birds. Take time to explain these to children. Though it may sound morbid to us, it is an opportunity to help children learn about death.
- For children under age 5 or 6, explain death in basic and concrete terms. Often it helps to explain it as the absence of familiar life functions. For example, “When Grandma died, she cannot breathe, eat, talk, think, or feel anymore.”
- Kids often will repeatedly ask the same questions; it is how they process information. As frustrating as this can be, continue to calmly tell them that the person has died and can’t come back. Also, do not discourage their questions by telling them they are too young.
- Try to answer children’s questions with brief and simple answers that are appropriate to their questions. Answers should be ones they can understand. Be careful not to overwhelm them with too many words.
- Avoid using euphemisms such as telling children that the person “went to sleep” or “went away” or even that your family has “lost” the person. These explanations can lead young children to become afraid to go to sleep or worried when parents leave the house and “go away”.
- Using the word “sickness” can be scary to young children. It is often helpful to explain to children that serious illnesses may cause death and although we all get sick sometimes, we usually get better again.
- Avoid telling children that only old people die. When a child eventually learns that young people die too, they may not trust you. It may be better to say, “Grandpa lived a long time before he died. Most people live a long time, but some don’t. I think that you and I will.”
- As children get older, they will have more questions and different questions about death. Take care to answer their questions as best you can.
- When you don’t know the answers to children’s questions, don’t be afraid to say you don’t know.
If you need help, many resources including books, articles, community organizations, and social workers or counselors can provide guidance.
Some Books to Help Explain Death to Children/Teens
Badger’s Parting Gifts by Susan Varley- Andersen Press Ltd.
Granpa by John Burningham
For ages 5 to 8:
Michael Rosen’s Sad Book by Michael Rosen
Gentle Willow by Joyce C. Mills. One of few books written for children suffering an illness from which they may not recover.
For ages 8 to 12:
When Someone Very Special Dies by Marge Heegaard. A practical workbook rather than a story. This book encourages children to illustrate their thoughts about death and loss through art.
The Cat Mummy by Jacqueline Wilson. Begins to talk about the death of a feisty girl’s cat, but it then causes the child to think about the death of her mother many years ago.
What on Earth Do You Do When Someone Dies? By Trevor Romain. Describes the range of emotions that people experience when a loved one dies and discusses how to cope.
Straight Talk About Death for Teenagers by Earl A. Grollman. A self-help book that discusses in straightforward terms, how to deal with the grief and other emotions caused by the death of a loved one.
The Grieving Teen by Helen FitzGerald. A fairly sophisticated book that gives advice for teens on how to cope with death, discussing the emotional impact of bereavement and the special needs and concerns of teens during the grieving process.
The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom. A simple book that doesn’t describe heaven in the literal sense, but rather it establishes that every life has a purpose and that all uncertainties will be cleared up in the end.