Explaining Death To Children: Supporting Each Stage Of Development

“Children are the world’s most valuable resource and its best hope for the future.” -John F. Kennedy

Grief is a unique experience for each of us and a personal journey that looks and feels differently for me than it does for you. The way we understand the world around us changes often throughout childhood and adolescence, and the way we think has a huge influence on the way we grieve and how loved ones can help. A toddler’s understanding of death and finality is very different from a teenager’s, whose experience through grief is in turn quite different from his or her parents or other adults.

Supporting Children At Each Stage Of Development

The Dougy Center has created a helpful resource for understanding the unique needs of grieving children at each stage of development. While each child’s experience is unique, you can read on for an overview of these ideas about how to best support a grieving child or teen:

Toddlers and Young Children (Ages 2-8)

Very young children don’t understand the finality of death. They may see death as reversible and wonder when their loved one will come home. As kids get a bit older, magical thinking (a belief that their thoughts can influence the world around them) is very common. This may lead to feelings of responsibility for the death, such as “I was really angry at my sister and wished she was dead… so it’s all my fault”

What you can do:

  • Give a simple truthful explanation using the words dead and died, such as “Grandma died. Her heart stopped working.”
  • Avoid phrases such as ‘passed away, gone, lost, or sleeping’ when speaking about the person who has died. These phrases can be very confusing for young children.
  • Create a safe space for children to talk openly about their thoughts and feelings.
  • Answer questions patiently and honestly.
  • Look for opportunities to create a sense of control. Offer age-appropriate choices whenever possible, such as “would you like to wear the red shirt or the blue shirt?”
  • Take time out for play!

Elementary School-age Children (Ages 8-12)

Here, children begin to understand the permanency of death and may think more about how the death of their loved one will impact them now as well as in the future. At this age children may have feelings of guilt or regret, which can lead to feeling responsible for the death, such as “I think it is all my fault because I was mean to my mom.”

What you can do:

  • Give children lots of ways to express themselves through activities like conversation, art, physical activity and journaling.
  • Look for opportunities to create a sense of control. You can offer age-appropriate choices, such as “would you prefer to play a game or go for a walk?”
  • Maintain a normal routine as much as possible.
  • Be a good listener and answer questions clearly using concrete words like dead and died, avoiding euphemisms such as ‘passed away, gone, lost, or sleeping’.
  • Create a safe space for children to talk openly about their thoughts and feelings.

Teenagers (Ages 13-18)

Teenagers have an understanding that death is permanent, and they are able to think through more abstract ideas about life and death. Teens often look to their peers and other individuals outside of their family for support through difficult moments.

What you can do:

  • Create a safe, non-judgmental space for teens to openly express their thoughts and feelings.
  • Ask open-ended questions and be a good and patient listener, allowing the teen to share their experience without judging or giving advice.
  • Answer questions honestly.
  • Be a model of how to care for and be kind to yourself through the grieving journey.

It is important to tailor our support to the special developmental needs of a child or teen who has lost someone they care about. Finding ways to support a child or teen in a way that makes sense for them could make a world of difference in the difficult time after their loss.

More like This: Should Children Attend Funerals? 8 Ways You Can Include Them

Additional Resources

For additional resources on supporting children and teens after a loss, you can check out the following organizations.  They provide helpful insight, suggestions, and resources for children and their families.

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