Helping Children Understand Death

Suzanne Howell, writer and Christian Counselor provides practical information for helping children deal with the death of a loved one. She provides information to help parents, teachers and caregivers answer questions that children may have about death and grief.

by Suzanne Howell

Children are handicapped when it comes to understanding death. They just have not learned enough to understand all that is happening, their language skills may not allow them to express their worries or their feelings, and with their short attention span they may think about the dying or dead for a few minutes and then be playing.

The fact that all living things die is common knowledge for adults, but not for children. Giving children the chance to bury a dead bird or pet gives them life experience to begin understanding death. We still laugh in our family about the dead bird we buried among the geraniums. Seven-year-old Andrew insisted that the bird needed a burial cloth. So I sacrificed a pink, cloth napkin to become a burial cloth. We wondered where he learned about burial cloths, but later he explained that at school they had read a book about death in another culture. So through school and experience, he learned some things about death. The concept that all living things will die is called universality. As young children are coming to understand this concept, they often have groups of people that they think are exempt from dying; for example, people in their family or other children. They may also have rules that only very old people can die. Given the opportunity through experience and teaching most children who are seven or older can understand that all living things will die.

Children may think of death as temporary. One little girl whose mother had died told her Dad, “Its time for Mommy to come back. She’s been in heaven long enough.” When the idea of the permanency of death has not developed children may want us to take grandma or grandpa to the hospital or to give them medicine to make them alive again. You can understand how this could be since during the dying process there have been times that going to the hospital or taking medicine worked. And how many times have parents said to children, “Take this medicine it will make you better.” Children confuse death with sleep or illness, which is temporary. To help children understand this permanency of death we adults need to watch the language we use. We can make it even more complicated if we talk about death as if the person has gone to sleep and avoid using the words dying and dead. 

Requests to put food in the casket or toys for pet that has died may demonstrate that the child has not yet understood that death means all bodily function cease. Often children are able to first realize that physical functions have stopped before they can realize that mental functions have stopped. This means that while they may not worry about the dog being hungry they may continue to think the dog misses them. 

What causes a person to die? As an adult, the answer is easy. The person or animal was too hurt or sick to live. But children have magical thinking. They think their actions, thoughts or feelings can cause things to happen. Remember the old game “Step on a Crack, Break Your Mother’s Back”? That is an example of magical thinking. And it could mean that because a child got mad at their friend the day before the friend was killed or they got tired of visiting grandpa in the nursing home and just wished he would die and get it done. This could accept blame for the death.

Most children do not understand these ideas about death until seven years of age. As adults, we can help children accumulate the knowledge they need to begin understanding death. Opportunities to teach in a natural way are powerful. When my children were young, we took them to a visitation for a member of our church that they knew but to whom they were not close. This gave them the opportunity to ask questions and for us to answer when the death was not emotionally stressful for us. When our dog, Brandy, got sick, we talked about what a tumor is and how it was changing her and then we buried her with great ceremony. The boys covered the grave with stones and objects they thought were important. We cried when Brandy died and talked about looking out into the yard and missing her. We did not make the mistake of trying to avoid grief by quickly getting another dog. It was ok to hurt. They learned that Brandy was still part of our lives even after she was dead because we had memories. 

As you are helping a child learn about death, you might remember that younger children are likely to play to express their feelings or confusions. School age children may also use play but are information seekers and are often full of detailed questions; some of which may seem gruesome. We can help by being sure that we listen without judgment to the their questions and concerns. We can tell the truth using appropriate words and not euphemisms like “He went to heaven,” which does not sound any different than “He went to the grocery store.” Talking about the person who is dying or has died helps to normalize the experience. Remember that learning about death and dying is a normal process and that caring adults can help.

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