Your child's capacity to understand death - and your approach to discussing it - will vary according to your child's age.
When someone dies, it can be difficult to know how to help your child 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.
Be honest with your child and encourage questions. This can be hard to do because you may not have many 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 with your child.
And if you need help, there are many resources - from books to counselors to community organizations - that can provide guidance. Your efforts now will go a long way in helping your child get through this difficult time - and through the inevitable losses and tough times that come later in his or her life.
Explaining Death in a Child's Terms
Your child's capacity to understand death - and your approach to discussing it - will vary according to your 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 it's a good idea to explain the death in terms that are basic and concrete. If the person 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 the person 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 once a person dies, it's final and that person isn't coming back. So even after you've gone through this explanation, your child may continue to ask where the person is or when the person is returning. As frustrating as this may be for you, continue to calmly reiterate, in concrete terms, that the person has died and can't come back, and that your child won't be seeing him or her again.
Avoid using euphemisms, like telling your child that the person who died just "went away" or "went to sleep" or even that your family "lost" the person. Because young kids think so literally, such phrases might inadvertently make your child afraid to go to sleep or fearful whenever someone goes away.
By the same token, remember that your child's questions may sound much deeper than they actually are. For example, a 5-year-old who asks where a person who died is now probably isn't asking whether there's an afterlife. Rather, the child might be satisfied hearing that the person 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 may think, for example, that if he just behaves or makes a wish or finds a lucky penny, he won't die or grandma won't die. Often, children in this age group 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 for 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 his or her own 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 may also be 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.
Mourning the Loss
Is it right to take kids to funerals? It's entirely up to you and your child. It's completely appropriate to let your child take part in any mourning ritual - if your child wants to. First explain what happens at a funeral or memorial and give your child the choice of whether to go.
What do you tell a young child about the funeral? You may want to explain that the body of the person who died is going to be in a large box called a casket. The person won't be able to talk or see or hear anything. There will likely be someone who talks about the person who died. The other people who go to the funeral may be sad and some may be crying.
This may be a good time to share any spiritual beliefs you have about death, and explain the meaning of the mourning rituals that you and your family will observe.
If you think your own grief might prevent you from helping your child at this difficult time, ask a friend or family member to care for and focus on your child during the service. Choose someone you both like and trust who won't mind leaving the funeral if your child wants to go.
Many parents worry about letting their kids witness their own grief, pain, and tears about a death. Don't - allowing your child to see your pain shows that crying is a natural reaction to emotional pain and loss. And it may make your child feel more comfortable sharing his or her feelings. That said, it's also important to convey that no matter how sad you may feel, you'll still be able to care for your child and make him or her feel safe.
Reaching Out for More Help
As kids learn how to deal with death, they need space, understanding, and patience to grieve in their own way.
Keep in mind that they may not show grief the same way an adult would. A young child might not cry, or might react to the news by acting out or becoming very hyperactive. A teen might act annoyed and might feel more comfortable confiding in peers. Whatever your child's 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 your child might need help coping with the loss. If your child's behavior changes radically - for example, a gregarious and easygoing child becomes angry, withdrawn, or extremely anxious; or goes from having straight As to Ds in school - you may want to think about reaching out for help.
A doctor, school guidance counselor, or mental health organization probably can provide assistance and recommendations. And avail yourself of the many books, websites, support groups, and other resources that might be helpful.
You can't always shield your child from the sad things that are a part of life. But by helping him or her cope now, you're giving your child emotional resources that will help during tough times throughout life.
Reviewed by: Dale Perkel, LCSW
Date reviewed: February 2006
Originally reviewed by: Steven J. Bachrach, M
Author: Kids Health