Parents often ask us how to help young children cope with death and for advice on how to explain the death of a loved one to their young children. Our instinct is to protect our children and to shield them from pain and sadness. However, children are intuitive and sense when something is wrong. They need to have their questions answered and need to be reassured that they are safe. Another question is how much children should be exposed to the reality of death and should children attend funeral services?
Shielding children from death now can lead to fear and difficulty confronting death later in life.
Talking about death
Making death a part of normal conversations is vital for children of all ages, but young children benefit the most because the concept of life being over is confusing. Young children also often do not have the vocabulary to express how they are feeling.
Try to equip your child with emotional resources before grief touches their life. The more often you talk about death—and what it means—the less scared and confused your child will be if they need to grieve a family member.
Parents find explaining death to their children especially difficult, because they are dealing with their own sorrow. In today’s connected world children are aware of death from early on. They hear about it in fairy tales, see it on TV and hear about it from their friends. Some children may have already experienced the death of a family member or even a pet.
Depending on their age they may not be able to grasp that death is permanent, inevitable, and happens to everyone. They may not understand how bodies function or where the deceased go. Young children often have optimism bias (believe good outcomes are more likely than bad outcomes) or they believe it is temporary or reversible. Be sure to explain that the deceased cannot come back, because the permanence of death is something that young children find hardest to conceptualise.
Getting through the first few days
Children process grief in bite-sized chunks, not all at once. Their daily routines are interrupted, and they struggle to understand why the adults around them are so sad. The world may suddenly seem ominous to them in a way that it has not before. When you have lost someone you love, try to stick to your child’s normal routine. Expect your child to keep asking you what happened, when your relative (or pet) will return. They might ask the same questions, day after day, and need you to answer the questions consistently, as painful as it is, because it helps them to grasp the finality of death.
Explaining death to your child
It is important not to avoid your child’s questions. Give brief, simple answers and avoid euphemisms such as “resting in peace,” as these are confusing for young children. Explain death in terms of physical functions that have ceased, even if it might sound a little cold, rather than giving complicated explanations of a particular illness. State the reasons for the death as simply as possible and be honest and concrete: “Grandpa was very, very old and his body couldn’t work anymore”. Reassure your child that if they get sick from a cold or flu, it does not mean they’ll die. Explain that there are different ways people get sick, and that we recover from minor illnesses (like the ones your child usually has).
Express your own emotions. Grieving is an important part of healing, for both children and adults. Don’t frighten your child with excessive grief, but don’t make the subject off-limits either. Explain that grownups need to cry sometimes too, and that you feel sad because you miss the special person.
Finally, make sure your child knows it is not their fault. Pre-schoolers tend to think that the world revolves around them, so they may feel some misguided blame. Reassure your child that it was nothing they did—and that no one could have stopped the death from happening. Be prepared for a variety of reactions. Children not only feel sorrow over the death of a loved one, they may also feel guilt or anger. Don’t be surprised if they express anger toward you, the doctors, and nurses, or even the deceased.
Don’t downplay the death of a pet
This is many children’s first brush with death, and it can be a deeply tragic event for them. A family dog or cat is often a child’s first and best playmate, offering unconditional love and companionship. Feeding the goldfish or dog regularly may have made them feel proud and grown up. Try not to say, “Don’t feel bad, Rocky is in heaven now” — this teaches children that their very real sadness is inappropriate. Instead, offer them lots of sympathy for their loss, and expect the same kinds of mourning and repeated questions that you’d get if a person they cared for had died. Having a funeral for the pet that died, even if you have to bury the goldfish in your garden is an ideal opportunity to teach children about the valuable ritual of a funeral.
Because pets are easily replaced when they die (to perhaps make the parents feel better), a child may grow up with a replacement theory. When a parent subsequently dies, the child might think the person who died can just be replaced with a new daddy or mommy.
Rituals and paying respect
Memorialise the deceased. Children need concrete ways to mourn the death of a loved one. Attending a funeral (including where a coffin or casket is present) helps young children to contextualise death and to foster a healthy acceptance of death as part of life. They can also participate in memorial services in whatever ways they might feel comfortable. They can light a candle at home, sing a song, draw a picture, or take part in some other rituals.
If they are attending a viewing, the funeral or other service, carefully explain beforehand what the body will look like, what a coffin is, how other people may be acting and give them as many details about the event as possible.
Help your child to create a memory box containing precious belongings of the deceased person, eg cottonwool dipped in perfume or aftershave of the deceased, a watch, spectacles, favourite book, photo’s, etc.
Consider making a Comfort Bear or Memorial Blanket or Pillow from the clothes of your loved one.
If you’re deeply bereaved by a recent death, do your best to guide your child through the difficult times, but don’t expect yourself to be perfect. It’s alright to cry in front of your child, and you can’t be expected to answer every question perfectly each time. If they see you cry, explain what you are feeling and why.
In difficult circumstances such as the loss of a loved one ask for help from friends and relatives, and remember that the more you help yourself cope, the better you’ll be able to help your child cope, both now and later.
Get help, if your child seems to be having an especially difficult time coping (if they’re terrified of going to sleep, for example, or seem depressed) speak to your family doctor or funeral planner about professional counselling. If the child is very young, a play therapist can help explain the loss with a series of counselling sessions.
See these helpful links for further advice and information: