My great grandmother (affectionately called Great Gram) died when I was around three years old. Because I was so young, I don’t have a great recollection of her funeral. What I do remember is my older sister (who was eight at the time) and my parents being very sad. I remember seeing my dad cry, which was a big thing for me because he was supposed to be my tough daddy that never cried. I couldn’t understand why everyone around me was so sad and felt bad that I wasn’t crying just like everybody else. At that age, I didn’t understand that Great Gram wasn’t going to be able to make funny faces with me or sneak butterscotch candies to me when mom wasn’t looking. I thought she was just sleeping in the comfy box at the front of the room. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks later I finally realized Great Gram was gone, and she wouldn’t be able to play with me anymore. I went on as if nothing happened, and it wasn’t until a couple of weeks later when my mom found me crying in my playroom saying, “I miss Great Gram.”
Children deal with death and grief in different ways. Some may become angry and aggressive, some may ask questions and some, like me, may continue on as if nothing happened. Regardless of how a child deals with grief, it is important to understand how to properly handle the child’s reaction to the loss of a loved one. Here are some tips and resources funeral professionals can share with their client families to help children handle the loss of a loved one:
Understand how children view death.
Children view death in a variety of ways depending on their age. A teen has a better understanding of the concept of death than a preschooler and will react in a much different way. If you understand how they might view death, you will be better equipped to empathize with them and their feelings.
Preschool age (three to six years old), don’t have a very clear view of death. At this age, children will often view death as temporary and reversible. They think they can bring the person back by “being good” and doing things such as cleaning their room or eating their vegetables. They can also feel incredibly guilty, as if it was their fault because they were “being naughty” or wished the person would go away. Oftentimes, children at this age can’t properly put their emotions into words so they begin to become more irritable, aggressive and some even regress developmentally (for example, wetting the bed after being potty-trained).
With this age group, it is very important to keep routines consistent. Having consistency helps a child feel safe. Since young children have difficulty verbally expressing their emotions, suggest they draw a picture to explain how they are feeling.
Older children (six to 12 years old) understand death as permanent and irreversible. They comprehend that everybody dies at some point and even associate dead people with angels or ghosts. At this age, they start to ask more questions about what happens after you die and what happens to the body. Older children still struggle to put their emotions into words and may express them in a different way. It is not uncommon for kids this age to avoid school or pull away from their friends and family. They may begin to feel insecure, clingy or abandoned as they worry about who will take care of them when their parents die.
Suggest that the child spend time with friends and continue a normal routine. Reassure them with love, and explain that what they’re feeling is normal. If possible, without overwhelming them, share your feelings of grief with the child. If they see that they are not the only one feeling sad, it may encourage them to talk about how they feel.
Teens (12 to 18 years old) have the best understanding about death. They are the closest to having an adult view but still struggle to handle their emotions like an adult. They don’t possess the life experiences or coping mechanisms to properly deal with death. Because of this, they may become reckless and impulsive and begin to pull away from family. They often find comfort in their friends or wish to be left alone.
To help teens cope with death, if they don’t want to speak to the family about it, suggest that they talk to an adult outside of the family, such as a teacher, pastor or counselor. Talking through their emotions with an outside person may help them sort out their feelings.
Some funeral homes also provide aftercare programs to offer support for families who have suffered a loss. Try talking to the funeral home in your community to see if they have any programs available.
By understanding how children may view and react to death, you are already better equipped to help them through the grieving process.
Sit down and talk with them.
Taking time to sit down and talk with children about death can help them better understand what is going on. Knowing what to say to them can be difficult, especially with younger children who require simplistic answers, something they can wrap their head around. If your explanation becomes too long or complicated, they may become disinterested or confused.
In Dr. Earl A. Grollman’s book Explaining Death to Children, he suggests that adults use normal everyday functions to explain death to younger children. For example, explain to a child that when a person dies, they no longer talk, eat or breathe. By being able to compare it to something they do every day, they will be able to better understand.
Adults also need to be careful about how they explain death to young children. Most adults think children are too young or innocent to hear the word “dead” or “died,” so they say “they are no longer with us” or “they went away.” This can cause confusion to a young child and can create separation anxiety. If you say “Uncle Dave went away” they may become worried about small separations, like going to school. It would also be a good idea to avoid the saying “death is like sleeping,” as this statement could lead to a fear of going to sleep. Children may start to believe if they go to sleep, they might not wake up. This can lead to cranky children and parents alike.
Regardless of when you sit down and talk to the child, it is important to use age-appropriate words and explanations.
Take time to answer their questions.
Children are very curious creatures. I’m sure you’ve heard the never-ending “why?” questions from a five-year-old at some point. They learn about the world by asking questions. It should be no shock that they’re going to ask questions about death. It is important you take the time to listen and answer them, no matter how hard the questions may be. When answering, remember to use age-appropriate language. Like I mentioned before, if you use a long-winded, clinical sounding explanation when talking to a five-year-old, they’re going to be even more confused. Make sure when you explain something to a child, they understand what you are telling them. Children sometimes confuse what they’ve heard, so ask them if they understand and if they have any questions before moving on. You may even prompt them to explain it back to you so you know they understand. Immediately following the death, children may not have a lot of questions. You should be prepared to answer any questions they will have down the road.
These suggestions are just that – suggestions. Keep in mind that each child grieves differently and no two experiences are alike. No matter how a child grieves, it is important to keep the dialogue open and honest so they feel comfortable expressing their emotions. Don’t shy away from their questions or give vague answers – it will only confuse them. Be patient and understanding. If you are struggling to help them through the grieving process or having difficulty bringing up the conversation, here are some additional resources that could point you in the right direction:
- National Alliance for Grieving Children
- Dougy Center
- Child Mind Institute
- Center for Mental Health Services
- National Institute for Mental Health