In a world where bad news is everywhere, our kids have access to information about global tragedies, including wars, terrorism, natural disasters, and hate crimes. Sometimes the sadness is closer to home, as a kid has to cope with the loss of a grandparent, close friend or even a pet. That means we parents are having hard conversations to help our kids understand and grieve.
Although we know that it’s inevitable, death is a painful subject. Helping kids comprehend great loss can be confounding. Nevertheless, it is important that we raise empathetic kids who understand the value of human life.
Psychologists have been studying children’s responses to death since the 1930s by looking at three specific aspects: irreversibility, non-functionality, and universality. A review of several studies indicates that kids begin to understand the permanence of death around four years old, but their ability to comprehend that every living thing dies comes later, between the ages of 5 and 7. Until they learn about the universality of death, kids believe there are groups of people who are exempt from dying including teachers, parents, and themselves. Those who experience emotionally traumatic events, like the loss of a loved one, develop a deeper understanding earlier.
According to the Stanford’s Children’s Hospital, the following are typical ideas of death based on common developmental ages:
- Baby: No concept of death, but a strong reaction to parental separation and routine changes.
- Toddler: Little concept of death, including an unclear connection between life and death and a lack of understanding of death’s permanence. Toddlers mirror the emotions of adults around them, who may be sad, mad, or scared.
- Preschool: Developing understanding of death, but often lacking understanding of permanence and how death happens (what causes death). Cartoons provide unrealistic understanding of death; kids at this age may ask a lot of questions about the basics of death—how and why it happens.
- School-age: Realistic understanding of death, including its permanence and inevitability. School-aged kids may ask a lot of questions about the specifics of death or fear for their own death or the death of others around them, including parents and other relatives.
- Teen: Most teens understand the key concepts of death, but many teens also live in denial of their own mortality. They may have trouble expressing their feelings about death or loss.
How do we talk to our kids about death and help them cope with grief? Here are research-driven strategies to guide the conversation.
Kids grieve in bursts
Kids and teens experience bursts of grief and strong displays of emotion, but they may not melt into a puddle of tears. They can become angry, confused, anxious, lonely, or disappointed. Elementary school-aged kids may have bad dreams and become clingy or distressed, sometimes even blaming themselves. Teens may become distracted and seek social isolation.
First, learn how different age groups grieve, then think about how your kid dealt with stress and anxiety previously to understand how they may respond now. If they’ve tended to get irritable and sleepless, these may be the reactions to expect. But kids can also surprise you. If yours seems especially annoying at the funeral, that may be grief, not disrespect.
Processing grief takes time. You may see signs of it days, weeks, or even months after a tragic event.
Allow your kid to continue to grieve.
Encourage them to talk with someone they trust about how they’re feeling.
Let them express their feelings through words or art.
Create a memory box as a memorial.
Plan a celebration of life to honor the one who has passed.
Tell them what they need to know
The Dougy Center, the National Center for Grieving Children and Families, recommends answering your kid’s questions, even the tough ones. Be age-appropriate and sensitive in your responses. Kids aren’t looking for the clinical reasons why someone died.
Although it can be tempting to use euphemisms like passed away or departed to soften sad news, it’s important to use the right words. “Grandpa died.” “Your aunt was killed in the car accident.” Unclear messaging about death can actually cause more harm than good.
It’s okay to talk about the person who died. Otherwise a kid may think it’s bad to bring up their name. Share memories together as a reminder that the person lived and had an impact. Give your kid something that may have been precious to the deceased as a remembrance and talk about why it’s an important token.
Be an emotional support
Your presence will be the biggest support to your kid. It only takes five to 20 minutes with you for them to feel secure and loved. This 1:1 attention is important, especially during times of sadness. In your role as a parent, model self-care and emotional health. Show your kid what it looks like to grieve, to feel loss, and to lean on others for support. Take care of yourself while you’re mourning, and ask for help when you need it. By modeling what it looks like, you will help your kid develop their own coping mechanisms for grief.
Create a memorial
Find a way to memorialize the person or people who have died. Rituals, such as funerals or wakes, are important steps to regain control while coping with loss. They also give kids and adults space and time to acknowledge the reality of death, support one another, and even develop a new social identity (as a child without a mother, for example).
When a tragedy is national or international and you want to help your kid understand what’s happened and honor the deceased, do something to commemorate the lives of those lost like
- honor the deceased by holding a memorial service,
- plant a tree as a poignant reminder of the tragic event,
- write cards to send to those directly impacted,
- make art in memory of the tragedy (consider contributing the art to a national or international memorial), or
- donate to a charity that responds in such circumstances (find charitable organizations at guidestar.org).
Talking about death and loss with your kid can be difficult, but the conversation is important and cathartic. Love, reassurance, and care are what you need.