Dealing with Death

Death is a concept that is difficult for a child to understand. Grieving adults are often confused and unsure how to respond supportively. Most children require many explanations and have many questions regarding death. "What happens when people die?" and "Where do they go?" are among the most common.

Discussing death is extremely difficult for many adults. It requires recognition that death is a natural process for all people. Children may have problems visualizing death. They may develop fears about what happens after death, what death feels like, or what would happen to them if their parents died. Parents should attempt to openly discuss death with their children if they ask about it or if the situation requires.

Death should be discussed honestly and in language that children can understand at their stage of development. A child's concept of death varies with age, and this must be taken into consideration.

Age 0 - 2 Years:

  1. Sees death as separation or abandonment;
  2. Has no cognitive understanding of death;
  3. Feels despair from disruption of caretaking.

Age 2 - 6 Years:

  1. Often believes that death is reversible, temporary;
  2. May perceive death as a punishment;
  3. Engages in magical thinking that wishes come true — may feel guilt for negative feelings toward the person who died, and think that was the cause of death.

Age 6 - 11 Years:

  1. Shows gradual understanding of irreversibility and finality of death;
  2. Demonstrates concrete reasoning with ability to comprehend cause and effect relationship.

Age 11 Years or Older:

  1. Understands that death is irreversible, universal, and inevitable;
  2. Has abstract and philosophical thinking.

Family members should know that showing feelings such as shock, disbelief, guilt, sadness, and anger are not only normal, but helpful. Sharing these feelings and memories of the person who died reduces the child's sense of isolation. Children need lots of reassurance that they will be loved and cared for by a consistent adult. They also must be assured that they did not cause the death, nor could they have prevented it. 

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