Young children working through a loss may respond very differently than adults. Understanding their point of view is important as abstract concepts, like death, are challenging for children to understand. Here are some simple ways you can help children process their loss and feelings:

*Ask children what they think death is. Relate it to something they are familiar with

*Stick to daily routines as much as possible. Children need to feel secure in their homes and routine helps

*Let them know this is a sad time and it’s perfectly normal to cry. Hiding your tears makes your grief appear shameful in a child’s eyes

*Help them understand that things will get better. In their limited experience, pain is short term. They fall down and get hurt, cry and then it’s over. They get scared if their loved ones feel hurt for months on end. This may lead to behavioral problems at a time when you’re least able to deal with it

*Take the children to the funeral and strengthen positive memories

*Tell the children what to expect

*Encourage children to ask questions

*Talk about things the children have experienced or noticed

*Keep in mind children have short attention spans. They may grieve one minute and go back to playing the next

Children’s Concept of Death

Preschool-5 years

*Understands events from his/her own limited experience. If Grandma dies in the hospital, a child may feel anyone who goes to the hospital will die

*Family religious beliefs affect the child’s response to death

*Life and consciousness are attributed to the dead (dead can feel, eat, think, etc). A child may want the deceased person to come to supper

*Death means “less alive or broken”

*Death is equated with sleep and separation and is reversible and temporary. A child may ask, “How long is dead?”

*May look unaffected and continue to play and laugh

5-6 Years Old

*Begin to accept death as happening to other people, but only when they are old

*See death as gradual yet still temporary

*May talk like there are degrees of death

*Life and death are interchangeable

6-9 Years Old

*Strongly influenced by parents reaction and the attitudes of others

*Can respond to easy, logical questions

*Death related questions reflect interest in their own bodies and how they function–“Will it hurt when I die?”

10-12 Years

*Moving toward and adult concept of death

*List old age, cancer and illnesses as likely reasons for death

*View death as final and inevitable

*May have questions about funeral services, embalming procedures, etc

*Realization of the finality of death is a tremendous threat to their sense of security and ego strength

*Often exhibit fear through uncooperative behavior. Sometimes rudeness and stubbornness and general acting out are pleas for control and power over their fear


*Death is understood in relation to the “natural law” of things in life

*Search for meaning and values related to death

*Try to put death aside and be concerned with life

*Least likely to accept cessation of life, especially their own

*Engage in risk taking behaviors to “defy” death

What NOT to do

*Do not tell a child that a loved one has “gone to sleep”. They may think that means they will die when they go to sleep

*Don’t say, “We’ve lost grandma” as they will think they can find her again

*Don’t lead them to believe that the only people who die are very old or have been in a bad accident. Kids die too

*When someone dies because they were ill, frame your words carefully as young children will think that every time they or someone they love is sick, even with a cold, that they will die