Helping Children Cope with Death

From the Guidance Counselor...
Helping Children Cope with Death
What to expect at this age
Death is one of the hardest subjects to broach with children, especially
when you're struggling to deal with your own sorrow. But death is also
an inescapable part of life, and children want to understand it and find
ways to grieve that feel natural.
At this age, kids are starting to understand that death is permanent and
inevitable. They know — intellectually, if not emotionally — that it can
happen to young people as well as the elderly. They may fear that death
is contagious in some way, and they're likely to personify it, thinking of
death in terms of a ghost or a hooded Grim Reaper. Unless they've had
young friends or siblings who've died, though, grade-schoolers still
don't think death can happen to them. They feel they can somehow
outwit or escape it. But if they have had a sibling or young friend who
died, they may be deeply shocked and terrified.
Kids react to death in a variety of ways. Don't be surprised if your child
becomes clingy, overly quiet, or suddenly balks at going to school. After
all, the world may suddenly seem ominous to her in a way that it hadn't
before. On the other hand, she may not show any reaction to the death
at all, or her responses may be intermittent, mixed in with her usual
cheerfulness and play. This is normal, too. Children process grief in bitesized chunks, not all at once. And many delay grieving until they feel it's
safe to let those feelings out — a process that could take months or even
years, particularly if they've lost a parent or a sibling.
How to explain death to your grade-schooler
Don't dodge her questions. It's normal for your child to be curious about
death, even if she hasn't yet lost a loved one. In fact, less emotionally
fraught times are good opportunities for laying groundwork that will
help your child cope when she does lose someone. Answer her
questions about death, and don't be afraid to read stories about children
whose pets or grandparents die.
Express your own emotions. Grieving is an important part of healing, for
both children and adults. Don't frighten your child with excessive grief,
but don't make the subject off-limits, either. Explain that grownups need
to cry sometimes, too, or that you feel sad because you miss Grandma.
Your grade-schooler is keenly aware of changes in your mood, and she'll
be even more worried if she senses that sorrow is a mysterious or taboo
Avoid euphemisms. Common adult phrases for death — "resting in
peace," "in eternal sleep" — can be confusing for a child, so don't say
that Grandpa is "sleeping" or "has gone away." Even a grade-schooler
may secretly worry that she'll die if she falls asleep at night, or that if
you go away on a trip, you won't come back. State the real reasons for
the death as simply as possible: "Grandpa had a serious kind of cancer
and his body couldn't recover from it." Be clear that we recover from
minor illnesses like the ones your child usually has.
Tread carefully when discussing God and heaven. Explanations of death
and the afterlife will of course depend on your own religious beliefs. If
the concepts of God and heaven will enter into your conversation, think
carefully about what you'll say, since words meant to comfort a child
may actually confuse her. If you tell your grade-schooler, "Janie was so
good that God wanted her with him," for instance, she may think: If God
wanted to take Janie, will he take me too? Something along the lines of,
"We're so sad that Janie isn't here with us and we'll miss her very much,
but it's comforting to know that she's with God now," will reassure your
child without adding to her worries. Finally, expect your child to feel
some anger at a God who'd let a loved one die.
Be prepared for a variety of reactions. Children not only feel sorrow over
the death of a loved one, they may also feel guilt or anger, especially if
the deceased was a close family member. Even if she never says so out
loud, a grade-schooler may think her little brother died because she was
jealous of him, for example. Or she may be angry that she — or you —
couldn't prevent him from dying. Emphasize to your child that nothing
she said or did caused the death, and don't be surprised if she expresses
anger toward you, the doctors and nurses, or even the deceased.
Expect the subject to come up repeatedly. Be ready to field the same
questions from your child over and over again, and for her to show signs
of grief or sadness over a long period of time — even years. She's also
likely to come up with new questions as her awareness of death and her
cognitive skills grow, grief counselors say. Don't worry that you didn't
explain the death adequately the first time — your child's ongoing
questions are normal. Just keep answering them as patiently as you can.
Memorialize the deceased. Grade-schoolers need concrete ways to
mourn the death of a loved one. Your child may or may not want to
attend a funeral. Funerals can help some children better accept their
loved one's death, particularly if you do a careful job of explaining
beforehand what the body will look like, what a coffin is, how other
people may be acting, and as many other details about the event as
possible. But a child should never be forced to attend such a service. She
can light a candle at home, sing a song, draw a picture, or take part in
some other ritual observance. It also helps to talk about the good
relationship she had with the person who died: "Remember when you
and Grandma went blueberry picking? She had so much fun with you."
Discuss miscarriage. If you and your partner have had a miscarriage,
your child will grieve over the loss, too — even if she didn't act excited
about the pregnancy to begin with. She may feel guilty about the death,
especially if she was jealous about the baby getting everyone's
attention. She may mourn the loss of the "big sister" role you'd been
preparing her for. And she'll need lots of encouragement to believe that
this kind of death is uncommon, especially if you try for another baby.
Explain that babies who miscarry are usually not healthy enough to live
outside the womb. Let your child say goodbye by drawing a picture or
making a special gift for the departed baby.
Don't downplay the death of a pet. Even if this isn't your child's first
brush with death, it can be a deeply tragic event for her. A family dog or
cat is often a child's first and best playmate, offering unconditional love
and companionship. Try not to say, "Don't feel bad, Rover is in heaven
now" — this teaches her that her very real sadness is inappropriate.
Instead, offer her lots of sympathy for her loss, and expect the same
kinds of ongoing mourning and repeated questions that you'd get if a
person she cared for had died.
Help her respond to media coverage of death. Your grade-schooler will
undoubtedly hear about the widely publicized deaths of media figures
or see news coverage of national disasters or wars. She may be very
frightened by misinformation from peers, and she'll definitely pick up
on the fact that you're sad or anxious. Reassure her that although you're
sad about what's going on, you're there to take care of her and will do
everything you can to keep her safe.
Do your best to get your child's life back to "normal." Don't compound
your child's loss by abandoning the schedule and activities that anchor
her life and give her a sense of security. Some schedule upset is to be
expected, of course, but the sooner your grade-schooler's routine gets
back to normal, the easier it will be for her. She needs to get to bed on
time, get up on time, eat meals on time, and go back to the friends and
fun she has at school.
Don't try to be perfect. If you're deeply bereaved by a recent death, do
your best to guide your grade-schooler through the difficult times, but
don't expect yourself to be perfect. It's all right to cry in front of your
child, and you can't expect yourself to answer every question perfectly
the first time. Ask for help from friends and relatives, and remember
that the more you help yourself cope, the better you'll be able to help
your child cope, both now and later.
Common Questions Children Ask
When questions about death come up, either because someone close to
your child has died or she's grappling with the implications of death,
you may be stumped about how best to respond. There are no "perfect"
answers — the most important thing is to answer your child's queries
as patiently and gently as possible and to understand that her concerns
and reactions will be different from yours. Expect to have to repeat your
answers over and over again, and to provide details if your child asks
for them. More so than at other ages, grade-schoolers want answers that
are very concrete. Here, some of kids' most common questions about
death, plus guidance for answering them in a way that will satisfy gradeschoolers' curiosity:
"What happens when you die?" "Our bodies stop working. The heart
won't beat, the muscles don't work, and the brain can't think. Most
people die because they're old and their bodies wear out, but some
people die from serious diseases or accidents. Nobody knows for sure
where people go after they die, but we know they're not in pain
anymore, and that's good."
"What's a funeral?" "A funeral is a ceremony to help all of us remember
the person who died, and an opportunity to show our love for him. The
person's body is there; sometimes you can see it, and sometimes it's in a
closed coffin. The people who come to the funeral are usually sad, even
"What's cremation?" Be sure your child has a clear understanding of
what "dead" means — that the body can feel no heat or pain — before
trying to explain this process. You can use dead leaves as an example,
explaining how they break down into little pieces and eventually back
into dirt, and tell her that people's bodies break down after they die, too.
"Sometimes people choose to make this process happen faster. They
take a dead body, which doesn't feel anything anymore, and make it
really hot so that it breaks down quickly and can become part of the
earth faster."
"What's a miscarriage?" "Some babies are too weak to grow properly, so
they die in their mother's body and the pregnancy ends before the baby
can be born. Often the mom can't even feel it when it happens, though if
the baby's bigger, she can tell when the baby stops kicking inside her.
It's rare for a baby to die after it's born unless there's something really
wrong with its heart or lungs or blood."
"When will I die?" "We don't know exactly when anyone will die, but
most of us live a long, long time. I'm sure you'll live to be very old."
"When will you die?" Children often ask questions that seem shocking or
callous to adults. What your grade-schooler really means is, "Will I still
be taken care of?" Even if she doesn't ask outright, it's wise to anticipate
worries about how stable her life will be: "I want you to know that I plan
to be here until I'm very, very old and you're all grown up."
"Was it my fault?" Chances are, your grade-schooler won't actually ask
this out loud, but feelings of guilt are common and worth anticipating,
so give her reassurance even if she never vocalizes such thoughts: "I
want you to know that your little brother died because he had leukemia,
a serious illness. You were a very good sister, and none of us did
anything to make his death happen."
"Can't we just pretend Dad's on a trip?" For children who've lost a very
close relative, it's common to try to block out their pain by pretending
nothing's happened. Gently remind her of the truth and provide her
with factual information: "I know it would feel better to think that. But
remember, Dad's heart attack was very quick and severe, and there was
no way he could recover from it."
"I remember Dad used to snuggle with me when I was a baby." If your
child shares memories that she clearly can't really have, don't correct
her. This just means the lost loved one is real to her, and stories like this
bring her a tremendous amount of comfort.
When it's time to get professional help
While adults commonly act sad when they are depressed, children
become agitated; what parents and teachers might call "acting up" may
actually be signs of depression.
The school counselor can be a good resource for your child, as kids often
worry that expressing their feelings of fear and sadness to parents will
cause their parents to feel worse. Communication between home and
school about how your child is behaving at home and whether or not
there have been any behavior changes at school can help everyone work
together to provide the best support for your child during this difficult
Thank you to for many of the tips avove.