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How to help a grieving child understand death

How to help a grieving child understand death

You can help your child as he grieves the loss of a loved one.

Whether it’s the painful loss of a loved one, the passing of a family pet or normal childhood curiosities about death, as a parent you will be faced with the challenge of explaining death and dying to your child.

Adults may wonder if they should broach the topic of death with their young children. Many parents faced with explaining death and dying often find it difficult to begin the conversation, not knowing how to start or what to say. Unfortunately, some parents tend to avoid the topic in an attempt to protect their child from reality or deny the finality of death.

It is important for parents to have healthy, age-appropriate conversations with their children about death and dying, especially as children are processing and grieving the loss of a loved one. See the tips and ideas below for help in talking to your child about death.

Take your child’s point of view into consideration

When talking to children about death, one must understand their point of view and recognize that even young children may already have a concept of death, explains Krystina Diman, a director with Morrissett Funeral & Cremation Service. Death-related themes appear frequently in children’s rhymes, fairy tales, television and songs, such as “Ring Around the Rosie,” an English song about the bubonic plague, a deer’s mother being killed in “Bambi,” or Humpty Dumpty falling and cracking.

These childhood tales can provide wholesome experiences that help children work through fears and anxieties related to death in a safe and distanced way.

"Curiosity about death is part of the normal child's interest in learning more about the world," said Diman.

Be familiar with the development of your child’s understanding of death

There are three developmental stages during which children gain a mature understanding of death, according to a 1948 study by Hungarian psychologist Maria Nagy.

  • Ages 3-5: Death is not seen as final and may be interpreted as ongoing living somewhere else. However, the child still feels the pain of separation.
  • Ages 5-9: Children personify death and believe it is final but avoidable.
  • Ages 9 to adolescent: Children view death as final and universal, and a process that each of us will experience.

In addition to these developmental stages, parents should also keep in mind their child’s developmental level, life experiences and individual personality.

Allow your child to express his thoughts first

When beginning a conversation with your child about death, let him talk first.

"We, as parents, often have the belief that we must always explain everything in order to teach, which is not true. When beginning this conversation, which may be a difficult topic for you but not necessarily for him, just ask your child what he thinks happens when you die or does he know what death is. Another option is to ask him to draw a picture of what he thinks happens or what he thinks death 'looks' like, and then expound on what he comes up with to either clear up any misconceptions or to confirm the truth he already knew," suggested Diman.

Understand that your child grieves differently than an adult

Understand that children do not react to loss or express their reactions as adults do, and they may not display their feelings as openly. Bereaved children especially need support, nurturance and continuity in their lives, even if they don’t appear to be affected by loss or death.

As children grieve, they have several specific needs, according to the Harvard Child Bereavement Study. A grieving child needs adequate, clear and age-appropriate information about a death. Avoid telling him the deceased person is “sleeping,” as he may then fear bedtime. His fears and anxieties should be addressed, and he needs to know that he will be cared for. Children need to be reassured that they are not to blame for a death, and they need someone who will listen to them and validate concerns. They need help coping with overwhelming feelings and should see grief behaviors modeled appropriately in the adults around them.

Encourage your child to take part in the funeral and burial services

"A common question that I have received from adults when making funeral arrangements is if they should allow the children to take part in the funeral and burial services," said Diman. "Taking part in the rituals of the service is paramount and can help children with their grief work. A basic rule is not to force a child to take part if they do not want to. The child should be told ahead of time what will occur at the visitation, service, or burial; why we engage in these activities; and what their options are for participation."

An example of a healthy, age-appropriate action is having a child place a stuffed animal or a letter that he has written in the casket with the deceased. A child may also sing a song, tell a story, say a prayer or recite a poem at the service. Perhaps he could place his hands in paint or trace around them with markers to leave handprints on the casket.

Involving children in discussions about death and allowing them to participate in the funeral service of a loved one will help them with their own grieving process and provide them with valuable tools to handle this natural part of the life journey.

Morrissett Funeral and Cremation Service is the oldest continuously operated business in South Richmond since 1870. Morrissett is the only funeral home in Virginia to be awarded the National Funeral Directors Association’s prestigious “Pursuit of Excellence” award each year since 2013 and is the first funeral home in Central Virginia to have trained therapy dogs available on staff.

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