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Children and Reactions to Death

Adapted from the National Association of School Psychologists

A child’s need to ask the same questions about death over and over is more of a need for reassurance that the story has not changed rather than a need for factual accuracy. Children also seek adult reactions so they can gauge their own reactions. Emotions may be expressed as angry outbursts or misbehaviors that are often not recognized as grief related.

Developmental Phases in Understanding Death

Ages 5-9: These ages are when children begin to understand the finality of death. Death is seen as an accident rather than inevitable. Death is often seen as something that will happen to others not to ourselves.

Ages 10-12: Children have the mental development and emotional security to express an understanding of death as a final and inevitable event.

Common Reactions for All Children

  • Anxious/fearful
  • Sad
  • Lonely/vulnerable
  • Guilty
  • Angry
  • Confused/scared
  • Withdrawn
  • Act aggressively
  • Poor attention span/lower grades
  • Act like it never happened
  • Nightmares/sleep disturbance
  • Appetite changes (over or under eating)

Suggestions for Parents to Support Children

  • Answer and encourage questions about illness, death, divorce, disaster, hospitals, etc.
  • Encourage children to talk about their feelings. Use reflective listening.
  • Share your grief reaction in order to normalize theirs.
  • Read books about death/loss/divorce, etc.
  • Encourage physical activities and play.
  • Maintain routine and provide good nutritional and sleep patterns.
  • Give hope. Children need to know they will enjoy life again.
  • Talk about the person who died/the loss in everyday conversation.

Talking to children about death

Some things in life are especially hard to deal with...and hard to talk about...for adults as well as for children. It seems that the hardest ones involve loss. While most of the time, going away is followed by coming back, there are times when it's not. When a loss is permanent, children can have a lot of anger and sadness about a person or a beloved pet being taken away from them.

Most young children know something about death. They may have seen a dead bird or bug or had a pet die. In addition, they may have seen people on television die. Still, their notion of death is very limited and simplistic, and they probably have many misunderstandings. It's precisely because children do not understand what death is about that they need help from loving adults in talking about it.

Words can be confusing

Even though children respond more to the tone of our voice than to any particular words we use, it's important to be careful with our explanations. Children tend to take what we say literally. Someone once told a child we know that death was like "going to sleep." That child had great difficulty going to bed and getting to sleep because she was afraid she might not ever wake up. If children hear that someone has "lost" a father or a daughter, imagine what they might think! Or hearing that grandpa went on a "long, long journey," a child might want to know, "If he came home from his vacation last year, when will he come back this time?"

Despite our best intentions, many of our words can be frightening or confusing to children. "If heaven is up in the sky," some children have wondered, "Why are we burying Aunt Suzie in the ground?" Or, "If I go up in an airplane, can I see my baby sister who is in heaven?" When unknowing adults say, "Your daddy is in heaven watching over you," they usually mean to be reassuring, but to a child, those words might raise the image of a spy who sees and knows everything that the child thinks and does. It's often more helpful to answer a child's questions about death with, "No one knows for sure, but I believe..." Saying "I wonder about that, too," is also a way of keeping the communication open.

The grieving process

Grief is the internal response we experience when we lose someone or something that we care about. The best way we as adults can help a child is to encourage the child to express his or her feelings and questions. A child needs reassurance that someone will be there to support them. Children need to feel included in what is happening in the situation. It is generally best to avoid nonessential separations at this time.

Whenever possible, maintain a sense of routine for your child. The predictability is something that can be counted on during this time when other routines have been disrupted. If possible, include in your child's daily routine a place or time to talk about the day and ask questions. Provide simple answers, give a short description and listen for questions behind the questions. Consider the age of your child and where he or she is developmentally. Remember that the crisis is reprocessed from time to time. New questions can arise at every stage.

The following are some tips for speaking with young people about death:

  • Be honest. It is not an easy subject for anyone. If you are upset also – do not be afraid to admit it. Model the fact that being upset is okay, and totally normal.
  • Use clear language. Trying to avoid the death by using phrases such as “your loss” and “gone to a better place” can frustrate older children and confuse younger children.
  • Expect questions, but don’t feel pressured to provide immediate answers. Death often brings up many questions for us all. Some of these may seem straightforward while other may be more complex. If there are questions that you are unable to answer, feel able to say so, and promise to look into providing an answer at a later point.
  • Recognize that every death and every reaction to it is unique. The way in which a child reacts to a death is dependent upon their relationship with the person who died, the time of death in the child’s development, the nature of the death, the child’s understanding of death, their support network and many other factors.
  • Don’t assume anything. Ask the child how he or she feels, rather than projecting feelings that you might expect them to have.
  • Moving on. Expect children (especially younger ones) to ‘move on’ fairly quickly. As adults, we tend to remain in a feeling or thought for a lot longer than children. If we are sad and reflective, we may be so for many hours. Children may be distraught one moment and then the next, need to ask what is for lunch, or express annoyance that it is raining outside. Although this behavior may seem surprising, it is completely normal.
  • Try to normalize the feelings that a bereaved young person shares with you. They are probably very worried that they are the only person who has ever felt this way. Assure them that feelings of anger, fatigue, fear, worry, stress, sadness, exhaustion, guilt, anxiety, frustration, loneliness, lack of focus etc are all a normal reaction to grief.
Grief Support

Hospice of Orange and Sullivan Counties

Hospice of Orange and Sullivan Counties offers resources and information on its website about bereavement and provides support to those who are grieving. Hospice also hosts the “Healing Hearts Children's Bereavement Group” in various locations throughout Orange and Sullivan Counties. The meetings are open to children ages 4-18 and their caregivers, who have had a loved one die. For more information, call Ann Flynn at 1-800-924-0157, ext. 117 or visit, www.hospiceoforange.com/bereaveSupport.htm.