Children handle death in a variety of ways, depending on their age and maturity. As Christine Roberts points out in her article, “Helping Children Cope With Death,” understanding death is an ongoing process. Many children fear the death of someone they love. For many children, this manifests as the ultimate separation anxiety after the death of a family member. There are many things parents can do to help children cope with the fear of death.
Children 6 and younger don’t have a very clear understanding of death. They may not comprehend that it is irreversible. This can be complicated by the fact that many children hear euphemisms for death such as the “loss” of a family member or that someone has “gone away.” In the child’s mind, people who go away can come back. Things that are lost can be found. The child can then generalize these statements, fearing that anyone who goes away may die. It is important to help children cope with these fears by being as honest and literal as possible. When the child asks where the dead person has gone, make it clear that the body has gone to the cemetery or funeral home.
Elementary School Years
Older children are just beginning to grasp the concept of death. However, many children this age still have magical thinking when it comes to death and dying. For example, the child who gets angry with a parent may think that the anger caused the parent’s illness or accident. Children this age may ask the same questions about death over and over. This isn’t because they didn’t hear the answer or have forgotten. It is just that the concept that someone they love can leave forever is very difficult for them to comprehend. For this age group, answer their repeated questions as honestly as possible. This is also a good age to begin to share any beliefs you have about death and afterlife.
Middle School Years
Tweens have begun to grasp the finality of death. The fear that someone they love will die has begun to take on new meaning as death has become the inevitable conclusion of all life. Children this age may start to express fears of a parent, friend or loved one dying as the inevitability of death becomes clear. It is no coincidence that many popular middle-grade books explore the death of a friend or family member. Many children explore their own feelings of loss of a loved one through books and movies. Reading and discussing with your child books that explore this topic is a good way to start a conversation about death.
High School Years
As they mature, teens are better able to understand and express abstract ideas. Teens may look for meaning in the death of a loved one. They may look for meaning through spiritual beliefs. Some teens might see the death of others as inevitable, but may revert to the belief that their youth and health protects them from death at the moment. This may mean that teens will react very differently to the death of a grandparent as opposed to the death of a peer.
When to Worry
Regardless of the child’s age, there are some things to look out for. While grief is natural if the child has lost someone, constant fear of losing others should be addressed. Anytime fear interferes with the child’s day-to-day activities, parents should be concerned. If fear is replaced with depression, weight loss, inability to sleep or a sense of hopelessness, parents should take immediate action. Any child who self harms must receive immediate help. Talk with your pediatrician if you see any warning signs in your child.
- ASCD: Helping Children Cope With Death
- Harvard Health Publications: Children's Fears and Anxieties
- Kids Health: Helping Your Child Deal with Death
- National Association of School Psychologists: Helping Children Cope With Loss, Death and Grief: Tips for Teachers and Parents
- Center for Loss & Life Transition: Dr. Wolfelt’s Foreword to Death, Loss, and Grief in Literature for Youth
- Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images