How Do Children Comprehend Death?
In honor of Memorial Day, it seemed only fitting to address the topic of death. All children will be exposed to death at some point, it’s just a matter of when. How does a child understand death? What do I tell a child? How can I be supportive during difficult times?
What to say and how to handle the situation entirely depends on your child’s age. Depending on your child’s age, he or she may have different levels of understanding regarding the concept that death is final, inevitable, and irreversible.
Infants and Toddlers
Infants and toddlers don’t understand any concepts of death. Their understanding is limited to the emotion and chaos that the death creates in their world. If the parent is grieving, constantly crying, distracted making funeral arrangements, etc., the child is going to react to that emotion. The key to helping this age child is to keep his or her routine as protected as possible from the disruptions of the situation.
Preschool-age children struggle with the concept that death is permanent. They are concrete thinkers. Developmentally this is the case and it is further enforced by the media that kids consume where the cartoon character dies (falls off a cliff or has a piano drop on his head) and instantly comes back to life. While your personal religious beliefs may involve an afterlife or Heaven, it helps to know that a child this age doesn’t understand that death isn’t reversible. So phrases like, “Grandma went to Heaven,” can be confusing and will require more explanation. Otherwise, in the child’s mind, at some point, Grandma will come back from Heaven (like a long trip). Abstract concepts about an afterlife and Heaven are above a preschooler’s understanding. They will need a much more concrete, explanation of the physical realities of death.
During the school age years, children are starting to develop a more realistic understanding of death. Some are starting to understand that it is final, but don’t necessarily understand that it is universal. Death is often personified by symbols of angels, skeletons, or ghosts at this age. They tend to be very curious about the details of death and may fear themselves dying. The concept of what happens after you die becomes a much bigger issue to kids at this age. If you are religious, this is an appropriate age to introduce these explanations.
School-aged children often struggle with the causality of death. They may fear that whatever caused the person to die, may cause you the parent to die (and increases the child’s fear of being left alone), or may cause themselves (the child) to die. The child may also fear that they are somehow to blame or feel guilty for the person’s death. From the adult perspective, it is often surprising to find this out. The child did nothing wrong, why do they feel guilty or to blame? For this developmental age, it’s just part of the process. So be sensitive and reassure your child that they didn’t do anything wrong. I remember as a child when my grandmother died. I felt very guilty that I didn’t spend more time with her. Now as an adult, I smile. How was I to drive myself to her house as a kid? What grandchild feels guilty for not spending more time with her grandmother? I never told my mom. I just felt bad. How tragic; my grandmother wouldn’t have wanted that.
This is the age to engage your child in a dialogue about what happened. Explain what happened (be simple, honest, and straight forward). Ask your child to tell you what he understands happened. It may be a very revealing conversation. It may surprise you to hear what your child perceives to have happened or what your child is afraid may happen. The conversation will give you a chance to alleviate fears. For example, your child may know that grandpa died in his sleep and be afraid that he or she too may die in his or her sleep. It may help your child to know that grandpa really had a heart attack while sleeping because he was really old and his heart wasn’t working well. Be sensitive to the fact that your child may not be ready to talk when you are and be open to when he or she is ready.
Teenagers understand death as adults do (i.e., they know it is inevitable, irreversible). However, there are still some major developmental components that contribute to how a teen reacts to death. Because a teen is learning to deal with abstract concepts, there is often a much larger struggle with “what is the meaning of death?” or “what is the purpose of life?”
When a person dies, it may trigger a teen to engage in risky behaviors to risk death (especially if the deceased is another teenager). The death may spawn an entire flood of never seen emotions including guilt, rage, or anxiety. Teens usually feel invincible, they never think anything bad will happen to them (this is why you did stupid stuff as a teen that you never would do now that you know better as an adult). Death calls this feeling into question and can cause all sorts of emotional reactions. As a parent, the key is to be aware of it and be as supportive as possible (listen and encourage expression of grief in healthy ways).
- Tell the truth. You may selectively leave out details that cause fear, but don’t lie. Don’t use phrases like, “Grandma went to sleep.” Sleep does not equal death. Adults understand that phrases like that are well intentioned, but in reality those types of phrases are confusing to a child and often fear inducing (the child is thinking, ‘could I die if I go to sleep?’).
- Keep routines as much as possible (sleep schedules, school, nutrition, etc.).
- Be emotionally supportive. Allow your child to go through the grieving process as he/she needs to and at his/her own pace.
- If your child’s grieving reactions seem self-destructive, seek professional help.
- Remind your child that not everyone who gets sick will die.
- Reassure your child that he/she will not be left alone. Reassure your child of your own health. If your child is old enough to understand, tell them of the backup plan/your will (e.g., who your child would live with if you should die).