Do you have to tell your child someone in their life has died and don’t know how to do it? Is your child grieving the death of someone and you don’t know how to help them?
Today’s topic is quite a serious one, but one that I think alot of people wonder about – children and grief. We’ll look at several topics related to children and grief such as:
- what age a child begins to understand death
- how do you tell a child that someone has died
- how do you explain death to a child
- How do you help support a grieving child
- Should your child attend the funeral
A little bit of my story…
Unfortunately, my husband and I have had the difficult job of addressing this issue with our own children after the death of our 10 year old son, Seth from a car accident. We had 5 other school aged children at the time of Seth’s death, 6 months pregnant with our last child, and 6 months away from bringing home our little girl we adopted from Guatemala. We had NO CLUE how to handle our children’s grief.
Hopefully, this post will shed some light on the subject and educate you on how to support children in grief.
To give you a small idea of what we all lost and to share with you our beautiful, bright, and oh so sassy little boy…..here is our Seth and our family at the time of Seth’s death.
What age does a child understand death?
As with any developmental stage, children also understand death differently from when they’re 3 years old until they’re 18. Here is a description of what children understand about death depending on their age.
- 1-3 year olds: These very young ones have no concept of death. They are only aware of the someone they love is absent from them.
- 3-5 year olds: These little ones perceive death as reversible. They believe that someone who has died will be able to come back to life in the future.
- 6-8 year olds: In this age group, death is seen as happening with old age and/or illnesses. Death isn’t personal – it’s externalized.
- 9-12 year olds: Nine to twelve year olds have a sense of immortality. They have a difficulty recognizing how a death will affect them personally.
- 13-18 year olds: This teens are able to fully understand the concept of death and dying. Depending on the maturity level (as with each age group), the child will be able to understand what has happened.
How do you tell a child that someone has died?
Before you try to explain death to a child, be aware of your own personal loss issues. Our own experiences with death can have major implications on how we respond to our children’s grief.
A few suggestions:
- Know your child’s developmental level. Younger children need simple, concrete definitions and explanations
- Inform the child immediately. This reduces the risk of them finding out from someone else.
- Avoid using abstract phrases such as, “grandma passed away” or “daddy went to be an angel”. Children cannot concretely understand terminology like that. Instead, use actual words such as “grandma died today” or “daddy’s body stopped working and he died”.
- Answer their questions. It’s alot like when talking to your kids about sex, if they are ready to ask the question….they are ready to hear the answer. Listen to them.
- Be honest and truthful and share your feelings.
How do you reassure a child about death?
Experiencing a death as an adult is difficult, but watching your child experience it is exponentially more difficult. Here are some tips to help support and reassure your child:
- The biggest support you can do to reassure your child is to be there for them and to listen. Really listen. Be patient with them.
- Avoid saying “I know exactly how you feel” because even if you’ve experienced the same kind of loss before (ex. Your dad died when you were your child’s age) the relationships are unique. Grief is so individualized.
- Children grieve intermittently. One day they may be playing outside and acting as if nothing is wrong and the next day they’ll be curled up in a ball on their bed sobbing. Be there. No words are even needed. Just hug and hold them.
- Initiate conversations about the person that died with your child. They will watch you and how you grieve. If you share memories or feelings with them, they will be more apt to share with you.
- Do not tell them that nothing will happen to you when they admit their fear of having someone else in their life die. You can’t guarantee that you’ll be with them forever. Reassure them that you will be there for them for as long as God allows and if for some reason you can’t be there to support them – that they have many other people in their life that will be available to help them.
Dr. Robin F. Goodman has a really good short video on the developmental stages of children and grief and how to support them within their grief.
Is it appropriate for a child to attend a funeral and at what age is it appropriate?
The short answer to this question is…..it depends. Not very helpful I know. You know your child the best – go with what your gut is telling you to. If they’re old enough – give them the choice and then respect whatever choice it is they made.
Refusing a child/teen from attending a funeral that they may want to go to may bring on feelings of resentment and lack of closure. Forcing a child/teen to attend when they are not wanting or can’t emotionally handle the situation could be more detrimental than helpful.
For our son’s Seth’s funeral, we had it video taped. That way we could offer our children (and ourselves for that matter) the ability to watch it again if we ever needed to. At least it’s there for them if they need it – the opposite may be very difficult to handle when they ask to watch it and there is nothing available.
Grief is devastating. Watching children grieve….is excruciating.
My prayer is that you may never have to go through what our family experienced. I want to encourage you, though, if part of your story includes a death in your family – you CAN experience joy again! It will take time and healing – but it is possible. I’m an example of being able to have joy again. For me, the only way to experience that joy is by having a faith in my Father in Heaven and that one day – i WILL see our son again…..what a day that is going to be!!
Starlight Ministries is a wonderful resource!
One resource I’d like to share with you is from an organization called Starlight Ministries, Inc. It is a Christ based grief and education center. On their website they provide many different resources to help educate you about grief. Specifically, they have created an amazing resource called Understanding Grief: Helpful Guides and Resources. It is available to you by filling out a request form at Starlight Ministries.
I hope that this has been helpful to you. Some of the ideas we covered were
- At what age do children understand death
- How do you tell a child that someone has died
- How do reassure a child who has experienced a death loss
- Is it appropriate to bring a child to a funeral
Have you had a situation in your life when you had to tell a child about a death? Do you have any further suggestions that may be helpful to share? Are you currently struggling with a situation with a grieving child?
Comment below – would love to hear from you!