Children learn about death through those around them and how others react to the loss of someone special to them. The best thing to do is to give an honest, simple explanation of why the person died.
What you’ll say to children should depend upon their ages. Young children think very literally, so speak simply and directly. It’s okay to say that grandpa died. Don’t say that he’s lost, that he left, or that he went to sleep. This will be confusing to a young child.
If the child asks for more information, use simple medical terms to explain that grandpa died of cancer, or heart disease, or a stroke. If you don’t know the answer to a child’s question, simply say so. Children don’t need a lot of detail; they just need your honest response.
In general, follow these developmental guidelines in discussing death with children:
Infants. Children under a year old seem to have very little awareness of death, but do experience feelings of loss and separation. Infants might show similar signs of stress as an older child or adult who is coping with loss: crankiness, eating disturbance, altered sleep patterns, or intestinal disturbances.
Toddlers. Children between the ages of one and three generally view death as temporary. That’s why it’s very important to state simply and directly that the person has died and to explain what that means.
You might say, Grandpa died and he won’t be with us anymore.
Young children. Children between the ages of three and six might believe their thoughts, feelings or actions can cause death. Feelings of responsibility and guilt can arise. It’s important to tell children what caused the death and be attuned to any sense of responsibility the child might convey.
You might say, Grandpa died today because he had cancer. Cancer is a disease that made it so Grandpa’s body couldn’t work anymore.
Older children. School aged children begin to develop a more mature understanding of death, seeing it as both inevitable and irreversible.
You might say, Grandpa died today from cancer because his body couldn’t function anymore without assistance from machines.
Teenagers. Teenagers are going through many changes and life in general can be very challenging. During a time of loss and mourning, let your teenager know that you’re there for her/him. Be present while also allowing space and privacy. Respect your teenager’s feelings, listen well, and let them teach you about their grief and how you can help.
You might say, Grandpa died today from his cancer. If you have questions about how Grandpa died or want more information, remember that I am here to answer your questions or together we’ll get answers to your questions. Sometimes talking about Grandpa’s death may make it easier for you—-I know it does me.
Each child is unique and many factors will influence his/her understanding of death. That’s why, in addition to talking, it’s important to take time to listen to your children’s thoughts, feelings or worries about death. Treat their feelings and questions patiently and sensitively. Seek professional help if you become concerned that your child is struggling with her/his grief.
Adapted with permission from GriefWorks, Sam Quick, Professor Emeritus, Human Development and Family Relations Specialist, Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service.
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