Helping Children Understand Death
Mostly it is loss which teaches us the worth of things.
Vrrrwow… the sound of a light saber comes close and pokes me in the back. I have been play-killed by my son, sometimes seen as Darth Vader, on a typical morning in our house. “You’re dead,” he says. Yet he expects me to get up and engage in another duel with him. I realize my five year old is attempting to understand death and conquer his anxiety through his pretend play. We have had three family members die within the past three years. All of them knew E and allowed for special times to play and connect with him at family gatherings. Though I suspect E would be wielding a weapon regardless of these experiences, I see him trying to understand but not yet grasping what it means when a person dies. In the midst of my own emotion dealing with the loss of someone I love, I notice it becomes challenging to remember that children are processing the experience of losing someone differently than I am and may need supports related to their level of awareness in order to cope with the loss.
Our local Mom’s club asked me some important and relevant questions related to children’s awareness of death and how a parent can best support a child. I appreciated the opportunity to reflect on it for myself and research and share ideas. When a death occurs, there is typically a flurry of activities whether it’s preparing for the travel to a funeral, calling loved ones or making arrangements. In addition, you are experiencing your own complex of emotions. Often there is not the time or the ability to consider what children might be thinking and feeling in the situation and how they may need to be supported. Our instinct might be to protect them. Book a sitter and don’t take them to the funeral might be our quick reaction as we are taking care of details. So reading, reflecting and considering how we might support our children when we are not in the midst of a crisis can better help formulate a plan so that when we face those difficult situations, we have already thought through how we might handle it.
Children begin to gain an awareness of death between the ages of 3-5 depending upon their life events and exposure. Similar to any developmental milestone, awareness arises around the same age but differently for each child depending upon their maturation process. In the first stage of awareness, they do not have a sense of the permanence of death. They begin to understand that someone is gone and can also understand that the biological processes have stopped but there may be a sense that they will return eventually. Children have a natural interest and curiosity about death which is accompanied by anxiety, worry and confusion. Why? Part of being human is dealing with mortality and the fact that change is constant. Children begin working on that understanding very early in life. Children begin to grapple with separation when left with a babysitter or going to preschool but they also engage in games to assert their own control and work on understanding mortality. Parents automatically play peek a-boo with a baby convincing them that even though they disappear for a moment, they will return. Games like freeze tag and hide and seek allow children to “play dead” or practice separation in order to help deal with some of their confusion and worry in a fun way.[i]
The Children’s Grief Association provides a detailed, helpful guide to understanding death from a developmental perspective.[ii] The following are some of the developmental awareness milestones they note. A child of any age may show regressive behaviors when dealing with the death of a loved one. At birth to two years of age, they can feel the emotions of their caregiver and sense the absence of a person but cannot understand that the person will not be returning. Because of an infant’s mirror neurons (the way our emotions are hard-wired), the feelings of loss will be there because of their experience of the feelings of those around them. But infants will not understand why they are feeling the way they are feeling.
Between three and five years of age, children will begin to understand and be curious about death. They will still not understand the permanence of death and will expect that person to return. Because this is the magical thinking stage, children may imagine thoughts that are worse than the reality and fear that another will die. They may become interested in pretend play that involves killing or death.
At six to nine years of age, children generally understand that death is final and they will not see the person again. A child of this age may be interested in death caused by sickness or an accident. A child may think that death is punishment or that he is the cause of a person’s death in his life. The child may have anxiety about who will take care of him if the caretaker dies. Also, he will think of important milestones whether it’s holidays or a graduation without that person who has passed. Reactions could include acting as if the death did not happen, social withdrawal, concentration difficulties including declining grades, being overly protective of loved ones and/or acting out aggressively. Between the ages of nine and twelve, in addition to the reactions and understandings of a six to nine year old, children may have a heightened awareness of death and worry that others may die. Children at this age understand the finality and are forming their understanding of spiritual concepts. Children may worry that they were the cause of the death. They may be particularly curious and anxious about the physical aspects of an illness or death.
Tweens and teenagers understand that everyone dies at some point. They may feel that their death and the death of others is impending. They may worry about being seen as weak if they show their feelings. They may have a sense of conflict between wanting to become independent and their need for dependence upon adults in their life. They may engage in high risk or impulsive behavior. In addition to mood swings, they may change their peer group and not perform as well in school. They may be more aggressive and could change their eating patterns.
The following ideas are ways to help children deal with their loss and help them feel supported during the death of a loved one whether it is a parent, a grandparent or a pet.
Things You Might Say
- Help them to know what you think and feel about the death. You may say, “We are sad that we are not going to see Grandpa Jim again. We loved him and we will really miss him.”
- Teach empathy for others who are sad. “I see you are noticing that your older brother is sad. Why don’t you pat him and tell him you are sorry he is so unhappy.”
- Listen and reflect back their feelings to them. “You sound sad about Uncle George. I understand. I feel that way too.”
- Do share your beliefs if they are positive (and don’t share if they are not positive and will make the child worry). “I believe that Grandpa Jim is in heaven – a good place – and though we cannot see him, we can talk to him whenever we want to and tell him we love him. I think he is listening even though he will not be able to talk to us in return.”
Things You Might Do
- Do maintain your usual routines as much as possible. Routines give children a sense of safety, comfort and stability.
- Do include your child in the mourning process. They do not have to participate in every step with you. But allow them to participate in some of the process with you so that they have the advantage of the supports that a ceremony or ritual brings. For children six or older, ask how they might want to remember the person or express sorrow for their passing. Allow them some choices in how they mourn the loss.
- Allow children to regress. If they are showing behaviors that you haven’t seen since toddler days, keep in mind that this is normal. Empathize and allow them comforts of their earlier developmental days – stuffed animals, blankets, toys.
- Encourage children to play and have fun. If they choose to engage in play related to death, allow it such as a funeral for a doll. Pretend play can be a constructive way for a child to gain control over her anxiety.
- Do make sure that the child has a photograph of the person or pet that is their own to keep. When they are sad and missing the person or pet, have them talk to the photograph.
- Drawing, doing artwork and writing in a journal or diary can also be a good way to express feelings and deal with sadness and anxiety.
Particularly if the person who died was important in the life of your child, create a ritual that will help your child deal with the passing and help with saying goodbye. Maybe you could plant a tree in the backyard with his grandpa’s or pet’s name on a plaque or simple label beneath it. Maybe you place a valuable object of that person’s in a box and bury it in your backyard. Or give the child an object that was the person’s to hold onto in a special place to remember him. Also if your child is dealing with the death in self destructive or aggressive ways, you may want to seek the support of a family or child counselor to help your child deal with the many difficult emotions.
Most importantly, when your family is coping with the death of a loved one, realize that your children’s understanding and experience of it will be different from your own. Seek support so that while you are emotional, you are able to receive guidance on how to support your children in their grieving process.
For more helpful information, check out the Children’s Grief Education Association’s site, www.childgrief.org.
The following are some children’s books that can help guide a conversation.
Sad Isn’t Bad: A Good-Grief Guidebook for Kids Dealing with Loss (Elf-Help Books for Kids) by Michaelene Mundy (Author) , R. W. Alley (Illustrator)
When Your Grandparent Dies: A Child’s Guide to Good Grief (Elf-Help Books for Kids) by Victoria Ryan (Author) , R. W. Alley (Illustrator)
Grandpa Loved by Josephine Nobisso (Author) , Maureen Hyde (Illustrator)
This is a recollection of the special times a young boy spent with his grandfather in the city, in the forest with the animals, at the beach, and with his family. Although the boy misses his beloved grandpa’s presence he feels assured that his passing has brought him to a better place and he knows that his grandpa’s love will always be with him.
I Miss You: A First Look at Death (First Look at Books) by Pat Thomas (Author) , Leslie Harker (Illustrator)
Mending Peter’s Heart by Maureen Wittbold (Author) , David Anderson (Author) , Larry Salk (Illustrator)
Mending Peter’s Heart is a book designed to help a child come to terms with the emotional issues raised by loss. In this case, it is through the loss of a beloved pet, Mishka, that Peter has to face the realities of death and dying. A sensitive neighbor comes to Peter’s aid and places the loss of Mishka into a larger understanding and compassionate framework.
Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children, by Bryan Mellonie with Robert Ingpen. 1983. Bantam.
Using examples of humans, trees, and sea creatures, this book explains that all living things have a lifetime with a beginning, an ending, and living in between. This simply-worded book is a good resource for explaining the life cycle to young children.
There is a video on YouTube for Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children. It is read and illustrated and may be another helpful tool for using with children.
The Saddest Time, by Norma Simon. Illus. by Jacqueline Rogers. 1992. Albert Whitman and Company.
A child experiencing the loss of a loved one is the subject of these three gentle stories. While each presents a different scenario (death by illness, accident, or old age), all of the stories address children’s sad feelings and present different coping strategies.
Samantha Jane’s Missing Smile; A Story about Coping with the Loss of a Parent by Julie Kaplow and Donna Pincus
The PBS Kids site lists good chapter books for tweens and teens. Check it out.
Check out the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s recommendations on children’s books on death.
[i] Children’s and Adolescents’ Understanding of Death. From the Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. http://www.deathreference.com. Retrieved on 9-19-13.
[ii] Lyles, M. M. (2004). Navigating Children’s Grief: How to Help Following a Death. Children’s Grief Association.
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