By Ronald H. Sunderland, Ed.D.
If you feel ill-prepared to discuss death with a child, you are not alone. Many of us hesitate to talk about dying and death, even with adults. But death and grief are inescapable. We must deal with grief. So must our children. If we are to help them, we must let them know it is all right to talk about death, dying and the grief that follows.
A child's understanding of death
- Preschool: Death is reversible and temporary, and the whole world is “concrete” since they have not yet begun to think abstractly.
- Ages 5-9: Death is final and all living things die, but they may not yet see death as personal. Somehow it won’t strike them or the people they love. They may associate death with a bad or evil power that stalks people.
- Ages 10-19: Death is irreversible and all living things die. Teenagers may become intrigued with death or even take unnecessary risks as a sort of “dare.”
What to say and do
What you say to a child about death will depend on his age and experience, but always tell the truth in age-appropriate language. Be aware that your own situation, experiences, beliefs and feelings influence what you say. Since modeling attitudes and behaviors is a significant part of any adult-child relationship, don’t be afraid to let children see and feel your own grief at appropriate times. Being open and honest may encourage children to share their deepest feelings and fears
Above all, become a listener. Don’t assume that your own experience in the world is universal. Listen. Explore what the child thinks and believes at this moment. Ask what the child believes to be important about the situation. What are his or her fears and anxieties?
How to approach misperceptions
Misperceptions about death may be acquired from other children or careless adults. Some common misperceptions include: equating death with “sleep,” equating death with “going away” and linking death to advanced age, as if only elderly people die. Such explanations of death can create anxiety for young children: Will I die when I go to sleep? Also, they may create distrust when children learn the truth: Kids die, too. Be honest, concise and basic when responding to misperceptions.
Children may also be confused about illness, hospitalization and death. They may not be able to distinguish between minor and terminal illness. Explain that only very serious illnesses cause death and, although we all get sick at times and some of us may need to go to the hospital, we usually get better again.
What you may see
Crying or sullen behavior
Mourning is the recognition of a deeply felt loss and a process that we must complete before we can go on with life. Mourning is healing. The expression of grief, through tears or any other emotion, should never be equated with weakness. Boys as well as girls should be allowed to cry and express their feelings if and when they so need.
Anger or hostility
The death of a family member may arouse anger in children as well as adults. The child may feel angry with the person who died for causing pain and sorrow or for leaving the child alone to cope with life. He may feel angry with the doctors who could not save the loved one. Or, the child may feel angry with himself for being unable to prevent the death or for not doing enough to help when the person was alive.
Children may express their angry thoughts openly, especially when they have lost someone on whom they depended, particularly a parent. It is difficult to hear anger directed toward the death and becomes even more so when it is expressed for what may appear to be selfish concerns. But anger is part of grief. Children may act out their anger in many ways, including overt anger, becoming withdrawn or depressed or developing physical symptoms.
During periods of anger, you must be a supportive and stabilizing influence. Accept and validate expressions of anger without judging, retaliating or arguing.
A child may seem listless, preoccupied or inattentive after the death of a loved one, which may affect schoolwork. Assignments may be neglected or forgotten, which is a classic expression of pain. So is the desire to stay home from school or sudden and chronic truancy.
Work with the child’s teacher to promote an atmosphere of sensitivity, understanding and support. Ask if assignments could be curtailed for a while or reduced, and request that the child’s problems not be discussed in front of the class.
When children experience the death of a family member, they often feel guilty. Young children in particular may have difficulty understanding cause-and-effect relationships. They may think that in some way they caused the death, or they may see death as a punishment: “Mom died and left me because I was bad.” Help children cope with guilt by reassuring them they have always been loved and still are.
It may also help to explain the circumstances of the death in simple and direct terms.
Sometimes a child may cope by not displaying tears, discernible sadness or acting out. He or she may act as if nothing is wrong. A brief period of indifference may be a child’s way of mentally preparing to face a painful loss.
Children may express their grief or sadness over a long period of time and also at unexpected moments. Provide them patience, understanding and support as they complete their grief work.
Capacity to heal
With ample love and support, children have the capacity to not only heal but to grow through grief. Your belief in their capacity to heal will help them integrate death into their lives and go on to live well and love well again.
About the author
Ronald H. Sunderland, Ed.D., is an internationally known educator and scholar in the fields of pastoral theology and ministry. He served as an adjunct faculty member for the Drew University School of Theology and as a doctoral advisor for that institution.