A child’s understanding of death changes with age. A 4-year-old does not have the same view of death as a 9-year-old. Research confirms that between the ages of 9 and 12, children arrive at an adult understanding of death. Prior to this time, children do not view death in the same manner as adults.
Tips for telling a child about a loss
- First communicate through touch
- Put your arms around your child.
- Sit close to your child.
- Hold your child on your lap.
- Hold your child's hands.
- Talk about things your child has experienced or noticed already.
- Father and/or mother crying, worried, sad
- Mother in the hospital
- Encourage and allow your child to ask questions
- Include adult reality
- Tell your child what to expect
- Strengthen positive memories
- Acknowledge and share your feelings
- Explain death in an understandable manner (simply and honestly)
- When appropriate, let your child make the decision whether he or she will attend the funeral
- Encourage your child to talk openly about his/her feelings
- Allow him or her to express feelings
- Support expression of emotions appropriate to grief and death
- Help your child deal with his or her feelings and emotions
Talking to children about death
When discussing the subject of death with children, be aware of their ability to understand certain things about death. The following outline can serve as a guide when addressing this sensitive issue with children.
Infants and Toddlers (birth to 3 years)
- No understanding of death.
- Can be expected to respond to stress and changes in the family.
Preschool Children (3 to 5 years)
- Death is simply a separation.
- Death is reversible – not permanent.
- Death means continued life only under different circumstances.
- Death may be viewed as punishment.
School-age Children (5 to 9 years)
- Death may be seen as a person, place or thing.
- Death has a personality.
- Death is final.
- Death is not universal – it can be avoided.
Pre-teen Children (9 to 11 years)
- Death is real and final.
- Death is natural.
- Death is inevitable (it can happen to anyone) and irreversible.
- Death separates the living from the non-living.
Adolescents (12 to 18 years)
- Death is the end of life.
- Death is associated with feelings and emotions.
- Death is a natural part of life.
- Death is seen from an "adult" viewpoint.
Helpful guidelines regarding children and funerals
- While encouraging your child to participate in the funeral, provide choices. There is a real difference between the questions, “You really don’t want to go to the funeral, do you?” and “Would you like to come to the funeral with me?” The first tells the child, “Don’t come.” The second provides a genuine choice.
- Let children anticipate what they will observe at the funeral, such as flowers, how the room will look, who will be coming, how long they will be there, etc.
- Help children anticipate that they will see people expressing a wide variety of emotions at the funeral. If adults are able to openly show feelings, including tears, children will feel freer to express a sense of loss at their own level.
- Help your child understanding why we have funerals. Children need to understand that the funeral is a time of sadness because someone has died, a time to honor the person who died, a time to help comfort and support each other and a time to affirm that life goes on.
- Allow children first to visit the funeral home with only a few people who are especially close, allowing them more freedom to react and talk openly about their feelings and concerns.
- Maintain the presence of caring adults before, during and after the funeral. Physical closeness and comfort can be reassuring to children during times of distress. Speaking specific words may not be as important as touching your child's shoulder, placing your hand on his or her back or giving him or her a shoulder to cry on.
- Do not prescribe to children what they should feel or for how long, particularly during the funeral experience. Remember that children often experience a “short sadness span” and that outward signs of grief may come and go. Realize that a lack of externalized mourning does not mean that children are not impacted by the loss.
- Recognize that viewing the body of someone who has died can be a part of the healing process. Most children have no innate fears of dead bodies. Viewing the body provides an opportunity to say goodbye and to help children acknowledge the reality of the death. Seeing the body often becomes even more important in situations where death was sudden and unexpected. As with attending the funeral, however, seeing the body should not be forced.
- Remember to be a good observer of your child’s behavior. Be patient and available as you allow your child to teach you what the death of someone they loved is like for them.
- Realize that although children may not completely understand the ceremony surrounding the death, being involved in the funeral helps establish a sense of comfort with the understanding.