Dealing with death

Posted on June 25th, 2013

Telling a child about the death of a loved one and helping them deal with the pain, is one of the hardest tasks of parenting. Here’s how to manage it effectively.

Our need to protect our children from sadness means that often we don’t want to tell them the truth. We fool ourselves into thinking that they’re too young to understand. By not involving our children, we can miss an opportunity to give them skills, which can leave them hurt and confused and alone in their grief.

Talking to children about death

  • Answer their questions in an age-appropriate way.
  • Too much information can overwhelm or confuse them, so let your child set the pace.
  • Tell them it’s okay to talk about what has happened, and that they’re free to ask questions. They must know that even if it’s sad and people cry, it’s still okay to talk.
  • Use examples of functions that that person can no longer do, for example, when people die, they don’t breathe, eat, talk, think or feel anymore.
  • A child might ask a question and seem satisfied with the answer, but then come back later to ask more. Check that the child has understood; young children can get confused and anxious.
  • Children learn through repetition, so don’t get distressed if they ask the same questions again.
  • They may ask difficult questions like, “What happens to the body? Where is the person now?” Give them honest information, but only what they can cope with.
  • Much of what you’ll say will depend on your own beliefs around death. Be honest about the things you don’t know.
Children learn through play. Use dolls and toys to role-play things that are happening and how people may be feeling. Drawing, stories and crafts can lead to conversations that give you an opportunity to explain things and gauge where your child is at emotionally.

Limiting fear and anxiety

  • If a loved one has passed away from an illness, it can be hard for small children to differentiate between minor ailments and serious illnesses. Explain that while some people die when they get sick, but mostly we get sick and then get better.
  • Telling a child that dying is like a long sleep can be scary. For them, going to sleep can suddenly be frightening.
  • Saying ‘she went away’ might make them worry that if you go away, you might not come back.
  • Saying that old people die can lead to distrust if a young person dies. You can say “Mostly people live a long time, but sometimes they don’t. I’m sure you and I will.” You can say, “We’re all going to die at some point, but it’s unlikely to be right now. You’ll always be taken care of.”

How children understand death

Most young children will see death as reversible. Cartoons can reinforce this idea when characters come alive repeatedly after they were crushed or blown up. Death becomes impersonal and not something that can affect them.

Five to nine years:
Most children of this age begin to realise that death is final. They may still not see it as personal and usually think they’re somehow immune to it. Death may be personified at this age, and may be associated with a skeleton or ghost, which can sometimes lead to nightmares.

Children show grief differently

Both boys and girls should be allowed to express their emotions and cry. Kids can be sad one minute and playing the next. This is normal. They can also feel like the person died because they were naughty. Help them understand that this is not true. They may also get angry with the person who died for leaving them. Let them know it’s okay to feel angry.

Should children attend funerals?
Usually it’s good to involve children in some way in remembering the person. Feeling excluded can do more damage. Funerals serve as a point of closure, and while we may worry about them dealing with so many sad people, it’s good for them to learn the cultural and religious ways that their family deals with death. Explain carefully what’s going to happen, and have an adult designated to help them during the service so that they can leave or go and play if needed.

Will my child’s grief affect him/her in any way?
There may be a milestone your child has previously reached that he can no longer cope with or a skill he’s now reluctant to try. He may regress and start wetting the bed for instance. Tantrums and acting out are also normal as are changes in sleep patterns.


Organise play dates or times with other friends so that children can also have a chance to just be kids and have fun, and not just be around sad adults. Keep talking and reassuring them, and be available to help them through the different emotions and worries that they have. When children don’t have the words to express how they feel, it often comes out in their behaviour.

Be kind to yourself
You’re hurting too at this time of loss, so be kind to yourself. If you feel that you don’t have the skills to help your child cope, it may be a good idea to get help from someone used to working with bereaved children. They might be able to give you tips and help with what to say and how to cope with specific behaviour. Being a parent at times like this is hard, so accept help and give you and your children time to adjust and learn to live with the loss.

By Sally-Jane Cameron


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