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What To Tell Children About Grief Depends on Their Age

Kathryn Patricelli, MA, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Children are by definition immature, and have developing understandings of what it means to be dead, to lose something important to you, and how to cope with loss. Though it is important to be open and honest with children about the nature of the loss that has occurred, it is also important that the each child's developmental level be taken into account in deciding how much to say. It is not until about ages 9 to 12 that a child fully comprehends the meaning and reality of death. A very young infant may experience death as a loss but will not be able to verbalize that loss, and in any event will not understand the loss to be irreversible. Children ages 2 to 6 will be unlikely to understand the irreversible nature of death as well. They are likely ask a lot of questions about what has occurred, and may act out negative behaviors and possibly display fears of abandonment. Children ages 6 to 9 are generally somewhat frightened of death as they begin to understand that it is a permanent condition. However, they also express curiosity about the nature of death.

upset teen and dogAs young children are naturally self-centered, their questions and thoughts about death tend to revolve around themselves: did they somehow caused the death ("I was naughty so Daddy left".), will it happen to them? ("Will I wake up tomorrow if I go to bed tonight?"), and who is going to take care of them? ("Now that Grandma is gone, who will baby-sit when Mom and Dad are away?"). It is important to answer such questions honestly when they arise, but also with sensitivity. Children need to know that death is permanent and isn’t going to change. They also need to know in no uncertain terms that the death was not caused by anything they did or did not do. Finally, they need to be comforted (to the extent that they become upset by the news of the death).

Children are not always able to verbalize their thoughts about death, or know what the right questions are to ask. They may be frightened of asking questions, or of the answers they may find out. For this reason, parents may want to step in and provide answers to some common childhood questions about death, even if the child has not asked the questions. Whether or not to offer such information is a judgment call that each parent has to make independently based on their knowledge of their child.

What a parent will have to say about death is often heavily influenced by their religious or spiritual beliefs concerning the nature of death and dying. For example, some parents will believe that heaven and hell are metaphorical or poetical concepts with no underlying reality, while others will believe that these are very literally real places that an immortal soul will take up residence in after death. Some parents will believe in the possibility of reunion with deceased relatives and loved ones in heaven, others will believe in the possibility of reincarnation, and still others will believe that no afterlife exists at all. Whatever the nature of parents' beliefs about death may be, it is important parents remember to be sensitive to their children's developmental needs as they communicate those beliefs to their children.

Explainations concerning death given to children should always be explained in an age-appropriate manner. In general, older children will want, and often can handle more of the truth than younger children. For example, given a situation where a four-year-old's grandmother has died, a parent might simply say:

"Grandma was very sick and died, so you won't get to see her again (in this life), but you know she loved you very much."

Parents may offer more details to an older child. For example, an eight-year-old who has lost his grandmother might be told the following,

"Grandma had a heart problem. She tried some medicine from her doctor, but it didn’t work. She really wanted to fix the problem, but it wasn't possible, and she has died. Though she loved all of us very much and will miss us, and though we feel the same about her, we won't get to see her again (in this life). It is very sad".