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Helping a Child Deal with Death

The death of a loved one, especially if it’s unexpected, is difficult for adults. But for children it’s even more upsetting. Mighty Mommy shares 8 tips to keep in mind when explaining death to your children, as well as ways to help them grieve at their own pace.

By
Cheryl Butler
6-minute read
Episode #256

The death of a loved one, especially if it’s unexpected, is difficult for adults. But for children, it’s even more upsetting - especially if they’ve never experienced the loss of anyone close to them before.

Mighty Mommy recently experienced this with her 8 kids for the first time when their grandfather passed away suddenly.  .

It is important to remember that children understand and respond to death differently.  No two children are alike and, depending on their ages, this topic must be broached with their individual developmental levels in mind.

Here are 8 tips to help you explain death to your child, as well as ways to help them grieve at their own pace:

Tip #1:  Explain Death in Age-Appropriate Terms

Children at different ages and developmental levels need different explanations of death. 

Toddler/Preschool-Age: Children of these young ages aren't yet able to understand the permanence of death. If a pet, family member, or friend dies when a child is this young, they may ask when the dead person or pet is going to come back. It is appropriate at this stage to continue to remind the child that the dead loved one is not coming back. Be gentle but honest.

School-Age/Tweens: School-age children are able to understand more abstract ideas and understand the permanence of death. You can give more details about death to children as they get older and they may ask more specific questions. It's best to allow your school-age child to guide the conversation, answering questions when asked and only providing as much detail as the child wants to hear. 

For example, my 8-year-old daughter couldn’t understand how her grandfather was going to go to heaven if his body was going to be buried in a nearby cemetery.   We shared a wonderful book with her called What’s Heaven by Maria Shriver that explains death and heaven in a real but comforting way for young children.  This little book will do much to help a child begin to understand the enormity of death. The point of it is not to argue whether there is a heaven and whether everyone will go there, but to create a safe haven for children to ask questions and receive comfort.  My daughter read this book at least a dozen times and it really helped her understand better what was happening.

Tip #2:  Be an Open Role Model

How an adult responds when a loved one dies can have a major effect on the way children react to death.  Sometimes adults close down and choose not to talk about death, figuring that it will help spare children of their pain and sadness.  The reality is, however, that children are going to grieve anyway.  If adults are willing to talk openly about death, it can really help children understand that grief is a natural feeling.  Kids need adults in their life to confirm that it’s Ok to be sad and to cry, and that the hurt they feel right now won’t last forever.

Tip #3:  Encourage Your Child’s Questions 

None of my 8 children have had any experience with the death of a close loved one before, so they all had lots of questions.  As parents, we don’t have all the answers, but we felt it was important to encourage them to ask questions or discuss whatever was on their mind regarding their grandfather's death. 

Our younger kids had questions about where their grandfather was now that he was dead and our older kids questioned why their grandfather died so suddenly after being so healthy for his entire life.  We answered their questions as openly as we could and for those questions we didn’t’ have answers to, we looked to other sources such as friends and family members that had experience with death to help us guide them.

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About the Author

Cheryl Butler

Cheryl L. Butler is the mother of eight children. Her experiences with infertility, adoption, seven pregnancies, and raising children with developmental delays have helped her become a resource on the joys and challenges of parenting. Call the Mighty Mommy listener line at 401-284-7575 to ask a parenting question. Your call could be featured on the show!