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How to talk to your kids about death

April 20, 2015

Written by Jaya Jagmohan, DO

Death is often a “taboo” subject that many adults do not like to discuss, especially with children. However, when a loved one dies, children must cope with and process the situation just as adults need to. It is an event for which parents cannot always be prepared, as sometimes death of a loved one comes suddenly. Even if parents do expect the death of a loved one, as in an ill, elderly family member, it is difficult to predict how a child will react. However, we can apply a few standards when helping our children cope with death to hopefully make the process easier for them.

Young children of about pre-school age generally see death as temporary. It is important that for this age group, adults avoid using phrases such as “Grandma went away” or “Grandma went to sleep.” Such language not only reinforces the idea that death is impermanent, but may cause the child to be afraid to go to sleep or fear that if someone goes away to the store, for example, he or she is dead.

Between the ages of about 5 and 9, children start to understand that death is irreversible. At this age, however, they do not generally relate it to themselves personally. They may personify death as a skeleton or ghost. Again, honest and direct answers and explanations are most effective for this age group.

Pre-teens and adolescents understand that death is permanent and that every living thing will eventually die. They also begin to understand that they will die one day. At this age, children begin to develop their own philosophical views on death and start to personalize the experience. It is important to be aware of dangerous behaviors in this age group, as adolescents may feel that by confronting death with risk-taking behaviors, they are taking control, not allowing death to affect them.

Regardless of the age, every child is an individual and may deviate from the expected. Children may react differently depending on their relationship with the deceased. An understanding of how children typically react at certain stages of development is important, but when death of a loved one occurs, it may be difficult to recall these pairings.

My general advice for all ages is as follows:

  1. Be honest, open, direct and empathetic
  2. Do not treat death as taboo or prevent discussion about the topic when children are present. Include them in the grieving process and encourage them to express their thoughts and feelings.
  3. Understand where your child is coming from. Ask him questions. Give answers based on their understanding of the situation.
  4. Provide support for your child. This support may come from religious leaders, doctors, counselors, or the child’s peers.
  5. Look out for signs that your child is not coping well, such as drastic changes in behavior.
It is every parent’s hope that their children should not have to feel any sorrow. However, every parent should be prepared to guide their children through the grieving process when death of a loved one occurs.