Many parents feel uncomfortable speaking to their children about death, yet it is helpful to let them know it is okay to talk about death and loss. How we approach the topic depends on the children’s age and development. It is a balance to figure out how to be open and available without imposing information that is not developmentally appropriate. We should not overwhelm children with information they do not understand or are not ready to hear.
While babies do not have the language to express their feelings, they experience feelings of loss and can pick up the sadness and grief of those around them. There may be a difference in eating and elimination habits; they may be more irritable; and may want to be held more. Keep routine as consistent as possible. If they want to be held more, do so. Offer comfort items such as a soft toy or blanket.
Preschoolers do not understand the permanency of death. They may feel responsible for it or think the person may return. They may think they caused the death through angry thoughts or wishes, or because of their behaviors. Brief and simple explanations are recommended. Concrete examples that are familiar to them may be helpful. For example, “when people die, they do not eat, talk, or breathe.” “When dogs die, they do not bark, lick, or run anymore.” Keep routines as consistent as possible. Remind them that they are safe and offer comfort items. Play can be a source of expression and healing.
Children may understand that all living things die, but may not believe it relates to their lives. Children learn through repetition and may need to hear the same answers again and again. Consistent routines are crucial. Allow them to ask questions and answer as honestly as possible. Older school aged children may understand that death is final and that all living things will eventually die. They may show curiosity with death/religion and may have an interest in the biological aspects of death. Allow them to make a collage to express feelings or write a letter to the deceased. Make a memory box or plant a tree or flower in memory of the deceased.
Teens may have a cognitive understanding but emotional immaturity. They want to be with peers more than with family, so they may seek support from friends. They may demonstrate high emotional intensity. Grief may resurface well after the death has occurred and may arise during milestones or anniversaries. Some teens may increase risk taking behavior to escape negative feelings. Encourage expression through art, writing, and music. Avoid glorifying death (especially with suicide).
Children may ask questions such as “when will you die?” In times like this, they are looking for reassurance. You can ask “are you scared that I won’t be here for you?” If they say yes, you can reassure them by saying “I expect to be here for a long time taking care of you. If anything did happen to me, there are lots of people who would take care of you, such as…”
For very young children, differentiate that someone who died of an illness was “very, very, very, very sick” so that they do not become fearful that they will die if the get a cold. Explain that we all get sick and usually get better, and that the fatal illness was very different.
Grief does not have a start and end point, and can resurface well after a period of time. At times, it is okay to be honest and say “I do not know the answer to that question.” Children need information that is clear and appropriate for their developmental level. They need reassurance that they are safe and adults will take care of them. Use straightforward language and avoid euphemisms.
Graziella Simonetti is a parent educator for EAC Network’s Long Island Parenting Institute and works as an early childhood social worker for the New York City Department of Education. She holds an advanced certificate in parent education from Adelphi University and is a NYSPEP credentialed parenting educator.