Grief and Death: How Do Children Cope?

How to support your child when someone dies
Adults often feel that children are too young to be told about death and try to protect them. Children are still exposed to death through TV, video games or the death of a pet. Adults have to be honest about death. If parents don’t give the right information, children fill in the gaps with their imaginations. Children cope best when they get open and honest information.

Tips for parents or caregivers
Children grieve in ways that are similar and different from adults. As children grow older, their understanding of death changes. Parents need to recognize that each child has his own way of working through grief as he gets older.

There is no wrong way to react when someone dies. Some children may cry, accept it right away and want to be near caregivers. Some may ease into it slowly by talking and asking questions. Others may appear unconcerned (for example, only wanting to play) until something triggers their emotions.

Children may react with:

  • Anger
  • Denial
  • Fear
  • Guilt

These feelings may be shown in your child’s behavior. These behaviors may include:

  • Acting out
  • Clinging
  • Withdrawal

Give children the support and love as they deal with death. Your child may sense something is wrong even if you do not say anything.

How to talk to your child
Be honest. Your child can read emotions, body language and overhear conversations between adults. Without the right information, your child may become worried and may think they caused you to be sad. It is OK to say "I don’t know" if you don’t know the answer to a child’s question.

Do not be afraid to let the child see you cry. Seeing your emotions lets a child know that it is OK to have feelings. But don’t make up other ways to explain death, such as sleeping, taking a trip or resting. A young child may become afraid of sleeping or traveling. Instead, use words such as dead and died.

Simply tell them when a person is dead they do not eat, sleep, feel, breathe, walk or play.

Religious beliefs
Tell children about your beliefs. It is important that you believe what you are telling them. Offer your religious beliefs after you have explained death. Try not to tell your child: She was so special God wanted her to be with him. Children who hear this may wonder why they were not special enough for God to want them. They may also fear that God will take them at any moment.

Allow children to be a part of death rituals such as funerals. Give children choices about whether they want to go or be a part of the ceremony. See if there are other ways to involve them, such as with pictures, videotape or a letter.

Children need a chance to say goodbye. A child may need to say goodbye with activities rather than words. Activities include playing, memory books, releasing balloons or planting flowers. If your child needs more support, it is OK to seek help at any time.