Talking with children about death
Children become aware of death, at some level, at a very young age. They come across it in fairytales, on news reports, they see dead insects or animals and may hear adults discussing it quite regularly. However, although young children don’t tend to give it much thought unless they are affected in a more personal way, as they get older, children naturally become more curious and it is not uncommon for them to start asking questions seemingly out of the blue from around age 4.
Children go through a series of stages in their understanding and conceptualisation of death:
Age 0-2: At this age children have no cognitive understanding of death. They would experience the death of someone close as separation or abandonment and towards the age of 2 they may be found actively looking around for the person who has died.
Age 2-6: At this age children tend to believe that death is temporary and reversible (reinforced by seeing cartoons where characters bounce back to life) or something that might happen as a punishment. They still have difficulty separating fantasy from reality at this stage and are particularly prone to magical thinking leading them to feeling responsible for the death through any negative feelings they had for the person.
Age 6-11: At this age, children begin to demonstrate an understanding that death is final, irreversible and inevitable. However, they still sometimes harbor the idea that they can somehow escape it through their own efforts and ingenuity. They often personify death as an angel of death, skeleton or ghost, making nightmares around these quite common. They are often very curious about the physical process of death and what happens when a person dies (questions about where a person has gone are usually still very literal, rather than existential). Children are still quite egocentric at this age and the main source of anxiety around death usually relates to fears of separation and what will happen to them if they or someone else dies.
Most children will have their first personal experience of bereavement through the death of a pet or elderly relative and the following might be useful to think about when helping a child to understand and adjust:
- When someone dies, children pick up on sadness around them and will wonder what is going on, even if they don’t ask. The death should be explained in simple terms. Children need to know that death is final and that people can't come back. Stick to a simple explanation, don't overload them with details and make it clear that they can ask questions about anything they want to know. Questions should be answered simply with just enough information to satisfy the child and then stop - let them determine the pace.
- For many children, hearing about someone who has died will, at some stage, raise concerns about other people dying, particularly their parents. You can say that most people live until they become old and you are doing everything you can to live a long life (ie taking care of yourself and keeping yourself safe etc). If you sense that your child is concerned about what would happen to them, you can add that if you were really unlucky and something did happen, they would carry on being looked after by people who love them, such as their other parent, aunts/uncles, grandparents etc.
- People often use euphemisms about death e.g. he's gone to a better place, his soul will live on, we “lost” our Grandad, her final “sleep”. It is best to avoid all of these as they are confusing and sometimes scary for children. Sometimes religious explanations designed to give comfort can be confusing and scary for children (e.g. if heaven is made to sound too idyllic children may wonder why everyone doesn’t go there now). The use of religious explanations is obviously down to personal beliefs, but it is important to remember that children are very concrete in their thinking and will take things very literally, so bear this in mind when explaining things.
- Children often assume that they are to blame for family tragedies unless explicitly told otherwise. They need to know that the person did not die because of anything they did or even thought.
- They often have questions about what happens to the body (also very common when pets die) and it is sensible to be prepared for this by thinking of a response that fits with your family tradition.
- If a close family member dies, it is important to remember that children need as much routine and predictability in their lives as possible. All the things that they usually do should continue as normal as much as possible to provide some containment and allow the children a chance to carry on their usual routines and activities. When something awful happens out of the blue they need to know that everything else in their life is safe and has some predictability. They also need places to go where they can be themselves, away from what has happened.
- Whether or not children attend a formal goodbye such as a funeral is an individual decision for families to consider. If it doesn’t feel appropriate for your child to attend, alternative goodbyes (such as a tree-planting or other small ceremony) can help children understand the significance of what has happened and provide a lasting memory of a goodbye.
- It's fine for children to see sadness and grief (and know that it's normal after a death) as long as it's not scary for them or feels out of control. Again, they need to know that it's not related to them or anything they have done, small or big.
Children's difficult questions Goodbyes & endings