Loss is difficult for all of us, and children are no exception. They need a powerful network of love and support to navigate grief — especially now. Since the pandemic began, more than 1.5 million children around the world have lost a parent, grandparent or other caregiver to COVID-19, and 1 million have been orphaned. These are staggering numbers. And, apart from actual deaths, many more millions of children have faced the possibility of loss while a parent or loved one was hospitalized with the coronavirus. Of course, even in a typical year, many kids face the loss of loved ones due to illness, accidents and aging.
Children’s first experience with mortality often comes with the death of a grandparent or a cherished pet. The death of a pet is significant and can be as painful as the death of a family member. In the wake of any bereavement, kids need honesty, comfort and someone to listen to their thoughts and ease their fears.
“It’s normal to want to protect children from the pain of loss,” says Jenna Glover, PhD, a pediatric psychologist in Children's Hospital Colorado's Pediatric Mental Health Institute. “But avoiding the topic can make them feel even more alone and confused than they already do. It’s important to talk with kids directly about what has happened and how they feel about it.”
“Children are resilient,” adds child life specialist Megan Fisher, BS, CCLS. “When they learn difficult information in a developmentally appropriate way, from a safe person, they can process the information, express their emotions and emerge stronger.”
While a child’s ability to understand death varies depending on their age and emotional and developmental level, as well as the closeness of the lost loved one, here are some general guidelines for how to help kids deal with death. Read on to learn how children in different age groups understand death, react to it, and ways to help them process their grief.
Tips for talking to children about death
Parents and caregivers should talk to their children directly about death and loss. It’s OK to talk about death itself and the many feelings that come with grief and loss, especially if they were close to the person or pet.
Begin by explaining what death is and what it means based on your family’s values and background. When speaking with your children, identify a safe space and time. It’s also important to use a warm and gentle tone. Establish eye contact and get on the child's level when talking to them.
Think about what your child already understands or thinks is happening, so you know how to gear your conversation. Let them lead the conversation by asking, “Do you know what is happening?” Remember to only answer their questions, or given them just enough information to help them understand. Often times, adults explain or share too much information, and this can lead to confusion. For example, some children understand the finality of death better than others. Tailor your language to the child's level. (More on this below.)
Be clear and concrete
Avoid using abstract words or euphemisms for death, like “fell asleep,” “passed away” or “went away.” This can be confusing, especially for younger children, as it may make them think that that their loved one will eventually come back.
Instead, explain death in clear, simple terms, such as, “She is dead. Her body has stopped working.” Using concrete words and terms is important, like:
- Explain that the word “died” means that the body stopped working, that doctors couldn’t fix it, and that the loved one won’t be coming back.
- Explain in the context of well-known life functions (for example, how the person no longer breathes, eats, thinks or feels).
Include children in the process (if they want to)
When someone dies, it can be helpful to include children in mourning rituals such as funerals, memorial services and any activities to commemorate the loved one. For many children, having a ceremony and continuing to visit a grave on special occasions, such as holidays or times when they especially miss them, can help provide closure and aid in the grieving process. That said, it’s important to offer this as a choice because not all kids will understand or benefit from attending these rituals.
Explain what is involved in the funeral or ceremony ahead of time, including who will be there, where the body will be, and that many people may be crying or feeling sad.
Feelings and questions are OK
It’s OK to let your child see your emotional pain. Crying is a natural reaction to grief, and it may help your child feel more comfortable sharing their own feelings.
Explain to your child that strong feelings are part of grief and that they can come and go for a long period of time. These feelings include sadness, anger, fear and even rage. Be sure to normalize these feelings and encourage them to feel and express their feelings in safe, healthy ways.
Honor children’s questions about death and ask them what they think. This can help you understand their knowledge about death.
Be patient with your child. They may need to have the same questions answered several times, or they may have more questions later.
Give your child space and time to process their feelings. This could include creating a special place for feeling their feelings and holding an object or picture that reminds them of their loved one.
And remember, grief is a process that takes time. Be available as they process what the death means to them.
Ask for help if you need it
Watch for signs that your child may need help coping with the death of a special person and consider reaching out to a counselor or therapist to provide additional support. These signs include:
- Extreme behavior changes (such as being withdrawn or aggressive)
- Change in school attendance or school performance
- Changes in sleeping, eating and mood
Take care of yourself, too
Remember to take care of yourself during this difficult time. You can help your child best when you are calm and rested. If you need more help with your own grieving process, or you’re struggling with depression or feelings of overwhelm or hopelessness, reach out for support from a mental health professional.
Tips on talking to children about death by age group
Conversations about death will likely be different depending on a child’s age. It is important to have these conversations and to be honest, say Dr. Glover and Fisher, even with preschool and elementary school children.
Here’s how to approach the topic depending on your child’s age.
Helping children grieve: ages 3 to 6 years old