When a loved one dies, it can be difficult to know how to help kids cope with the loss, particularly as you work through your own grief.How much kids can understand about death depends largely on their age, life experiences, and personality. But there are a few important points to remember in all cases.
Explaining Death in a Child’s Terms
Be honest with kids and encourage questions. This can be hard because you may not have all of the answers. But it’s important to create an atmosphere of comfort and openness, and send the message that there’s no one right or wrong way to feel. You might also share any spiritual beliefs you have about death.
A child’s capacity to understand death — and your approach to discussing it — will vary according to the child’s age. Each child is unique, but here are some rough guidelines to keep in mind.
Until kids are about 5 or 6 years old, their view of the world is very literal. So explain the death in basic and concrete terms. If the loved one was ill or elderly, for example, you might explain that the person’s body wasn’t working anymore and the doctors couldn’t fix it. If someone dies suddenly, like in an accident, you might explain what happened — that because of this very sad event, the person’s body stopped working. You may have to explain that “dying” or “dead” means that the body stopped working.
Kids this young often have a hard time understanding that all people and living things eventually die, and that it’s final and they won’t come back. So even after you’ve explained this, kids may continue to ask where the loved one is or when the person is returning. As frustrating as this can be, continue to calmly reiterate that the person has died and can’t come back.
Avoid using euphemisms, such as telling kids that the loved one “went away” or “went to sleep” or even that your family “lost” the person. Because young kids think so literally, such phrases might inadvertently make them afraid to go to sleep or fearful whenever someone goes away.
Also remember that kids’ questions may sound much deeper than they actually are. For example, a 5-year-old who asks where someone who died is now probably isn’t asking whether there’s an afterlife. Rather, kids might be satisfied hearing that someone who died is now in the cemetery. This may also be a time to share your beliefs about an afterlife or heaven if that is part of your belief system.