Guest post by Katelyn MacDougall, MSW, LICSW
There are many things in life from which we cannot protect our children. What you can do is give your children the tools to cope and adjust to the inevitable fact that death is part of life. Teaching children about death also teaches them the importance of living. Children are constantly seeking information as they grow and learn. Understanding death is no exception. Let’s explore how children understand death, how to broach the topic and some helpful tips for discussions.
How do children understand death at different ages?
Children need death explained in a way they can understand, depending on where they are developmentally and depending on their life experiences. It is important to remember all children develop differently and each stage is fluid, meaning they may experience some aspects of one stage and not others. Each child will also experience life uniquely so their experiences may also impact their understanding. All children will need ongoing conversations as they develop, and through each encounter with death.
- Preschoolers (2-4) think death is reversible. They may ask when the deceased will return. They may ask casual questions and begin to wonder if death will happen to everyone.
- Early Elementary Schoolers (5-8) will likely still see death as reversible. They may start to wonder if their thoughts or behavior have had a role in the death.
- Late Elementary Schoolers (8-12) will likely understand death is permanent and begin to explore how death will affect them personally in the long run. They may focus on trying to understand the details of how someone dies.
- Adolescents (13-18) understand the permanence of death and begin to wrestle with existential questions about the meaning of life and death.
When to talk to kids about death
Being proactive with conversations about death can prepare you and your child when death does occur. You will be able to present information in a clear-minded way and with level emotions if you’re not in a crisis. You can take an opportunity to talk about death when prompted through children’s books, children’s movies or through nature (i.e. when a flower or insect dies). Of course, if you are faced with the death of a loved one or even someone in the news, this is a natural opportunity to talk about it. If a loved one dies, don't wait too long to engage your child in the news and conversation. Children know when something is wrong, and have a strong desire to understand what is happening. Putting off the discussion can add to their stress and confusion.
Tips for talking to children about death
- Take time to think about death yourself
Death is emotional, complex and generally something we like to avoid thinking about. Give yourself time to process your own thoughts and feelings about death before trying to explain to your children. If you have a spouse or a co-parent, talk to them about death, aiming to be on the same page about explanations and understanding. It can be helpful for kids to feel like the people in their support network are on the same page. Want a couple of practical ideas to get more comfortable with the topic? Attend a Death Cafe near you to discuss death-related topics with other adults or host your own Death Over Dinner event at home to talk to other parents about the topic. You can also do some proactive end-of-life planning for yourself to get a bit more comfortable with the subject. Cake is a free website that helps you get your affairs in order and think about end-of-life topics like healthcare, legal, funeral, and legacy decisions. Create a free Cake plan to start exploring.
- Use the word death
Children have wonderful imaginations. This can lead them to a very different understanding if you use euphemisms such as gone, passed on, or lost. Be sure to tell them that nothing they said or did
causedthe death. Let them know they cannot "catch" death just by knowing someone who died. Explore what they already know about death, which may have been learned through another child or something seen on TV. Ask them to explain death to you.
- Provide age-appropriate, concrete language
Use concrete words they can understand about the circumstances of the death. For example, a young child may better understand “Grandpa’s heart stopped pumping, so he died" than they would "Grandpa died of heart complications (or a heart attack)"
- You don’t have to know everything about death
Parents often worry about getting a difficult question they will not be sure how to answer. You don’t have to know everything. You can defer any hard questions by saying “That is a good question. I don’t know, but I will work on an answer.” Just make sure you actually bring up the subject again. Kids will sense you're avoiding the topic if you try to brush it under the rug. It is also OKto say “That is a good question. I wish I had an answer, but I don't."
- Show your emotions
As previously mentioned, children are intuitive. If your words and body language aren't aligned, (saying "I'm fine" but looking teary-eyed), your children will notice. It is important to acknowledge that death is very difficult and that it is OK and healthy to cry. Teach children how to express what they may be feeling inside, and encourage them to talk about how they feel.
Alsoencourage them to express feelings of happiness and gratitude by sharing your own memories. Show them it's good to talk about and remember people who have died. For example, "I'm so happy we got to go on vacation with Grandpa last summer. I'll always remember when he taught you how to fish. He loved you very, very much!"
- Share your beliefs
It can be comforting to share your beliefs about death. Expose them to the idea that people have different beliefs about death. Allow them to develop and process beliefs of their own. If asked about an afterlife, it’s OK to say “I don’t know for sure, but I hope we’ll see other again someday. Here's what I think happens after death. What do you think happens?”
- Check back in
Kids may not ask questions as they might not know what to ask or sense that it is better not to. Create space and time to check in about this difficult conversation. This is another way to build their trust and feel like they can grapple with this difficult concept. It's unlikely that one conversation about the death of a loved one will be enough.
Above all else, remember children are resilient. It is not possible to protect them from all the stresses in life, but you can build on their strengths and support them when they are faced with challenges. Each child is different and you know your child best. There are social workers, teachers, guidance counselors, and healthcare professionals who have expertise on this topic. You don’t have to talk about death alone. Be gentle with yourself. Parenting is difficult enough. Be confident that your children can comprehend and understand death.
Plan for yourself
Another fantastic way to normalize talk of death and get more comfortable with the subject yourself is to do end-of-life planning. Cake is a free website that helps you plan ahead for healthcare, legal, funeral, and legacy decisions. It's easy to create and store your important documents, then share 24/7 access with your family. This offers real peace of mind for you and them — a plan is in place should anything unexpected happen to you. It's also just a great way to reflect on life and death and speak about the topic with more confidence. Create a free Cake account to start exploring
Katelyn MacDougall, MSW, LICSW
Katelyn has been an oncology social worker for 7 years. She is an employee of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in the Department of Psychosocial Oncology and Palliative Care. She works alongside medical teams, helping patients and families cope with the impact of cancer and related diseases through professional counseling, consultation, and connection with supportive resources. Katelyn is embedded in the Young Adult Program, providing direct patient care and program development for young adults ages 18-39 with cancer.
- Developmental Responses to Grief, The Dougy Center: The National Center for Grieving Children & Families, www.dougy.org/docs/Developmental_Responses_2017.pdf.
- “How to Talk to Kids About Death .” Child Development Institute, 25 Sept. 2011, childdevelopmentinfo.com/how-to-be-a-parent/communication/talk-to-kids-death/.
- Russell, C.E., (2007) Living Dying: A Guide for Adult Supporting Grieving Children and Teenagers.