The death of a loved one is confusing and challenging for persons of all ages. When this happens to a child, there is an additional level of confusion, as they may not have a full understanding of what death means. This lack of understanding the concept of death, can make adjusting to the loss even more difficult.
There are three basic concepts a child must grasp to understand death.* These concepts are often began to be understood between the ages of 5 and 7. But, each child develops at a different rate, so it is best not to assume a child’s level of understanding death, and instead ask him or her to explain it.
1) Death is permanent.
Young children often view death as temporary. Similar to someone going on a long trip – children may expect the person who died to return at some point in the future. This can also be confused by using metaphors for death, such as “Mom is in a safe place,” or “Dad is resting in peace.”
While speaking about death directly can be painful, and uncomfortable, it is best to use direct language with children to avoid confusion, instead of phrases such as “passed away.” For your family, this may include a discussion about religion, and the difference between ‘life after death,’ and life as we know it. The key factor being that the deceased will not return in a physical, present, daily-life sense.
In order to begin the mourning, and ultimately healing, a child must be able to understand that the loss is irreversible. Not understanding the permanence of death will be confusing for the child, as they begin to wonder when their loved one will return, and why they left. They may use a form of “magical thinking,” convincing themselves that if they think, or do the right thing, their loved one will return.
In Children and Death, Danai Papadatou and Costas Papadatos provide this suggested description to explain death to a child: “When someone dies, that means their body is no longer working. The heart stops beating, they no longer need to eat or sleep, and they no longer feel any pain. They don’t need their body any longer. That means we could never see them again as we could before.”
2) All life functions end completely at the time of death.
For very young children, it may be confusing to understand that living functions, such as pain, end completely at the time of death. This can be further confused when we say things like “Your brother is watching over us,” or ask our children to talk to their Grandmother, as she will be able to hear them. We should be aware that this can be confusing, and even frightening for some children.
Children who do not understand that all life functions end at the time of death, may become preoccupied with the physical suffering of the deceased. They may be scared for the deceased – worried about how they are going to breathe in a casket, how dark it must be underground, or fearful of the pain of cremation.
3) Everything that is alive eventually dies
Death is a fearful concept at any age. As parents, we try to protect our children from this reality, assuring them that we will always be there for them; that they do not have to worry about dying. When a friend or family member dies, this concept confronts them head-on.
If a child does not understand that death is inevitable, and that everyone eventually dies, they will begin to wonder why the person they loved had to die. They may assume that they have done, or thought, something so horrible that they are being punished. This is another form of “magical thinking.” Alternatively, a child may assume that the person who died did something so horrible that he or she is being punished. The guilt, or shame that comes with these scenarios will impede the child’s ability to adjust to the loss, and may encourage the child to remain silent about the death so as to hide their guilt or shame.
Upon understanding that everything eventually dies, a child usually begins to fear that other loved ones will die, or they will die themselves. Telling your child at this point that you will never die would be unbelievable. You should reassure your child that you are doing everything in your ability to remain alive as long as possible, until they are adults. Explain to them that should something unexpected happen, they will always be cared for.
One last point, while not a concept for the child to understand, but important to keep in mind when explaining death to a child: children must understand the real reasons why people die.
If a child does not understand why a person died, they are more likely to use “magical thinking” to explain the loss, and thus more likely to feel like they caused, or can change the fact that their loved one died.
We need to explain why our loved ones died, but do so in an age-appropriate manner. Children often do not understand euphemisms, so use direct, but appropriate language to explain the cause of the death. Graphic descriptions are not necessary, and should be avoided. Share the basic details of what caused the death, and allow your child to ask questions to provide more detail. Also anticipate what parts of the story could be frightening for your child, and try to reassure them (for example: not everyone gets into car accidents, and only in very rare, very bad accidents do people die).
It is also important that we are honest with our children about the cause of the death (again, in age-appropriate terms). Hiding, or lying about why our loved one died will often lead to anger, frustration, and possibly resentment when the child is older and finds out the true story.
While most children begin to understand these four concepts around ages 5-7, each child develops at a different pace, so it is best to ask a child to explain his or her understanding of death to see where their knowledge may be lacking. Helping your child understand these four concepts, will help him or her begin to mourn, adjust, and heal.
In the Aftermath of a Crisis: Parents’ Guide to Talking with Children about Death by David J. Schonfeld, M.D. of the NCCEV