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Talking to children about death: An age-by-age guide

Talking to children about the death of a loved one or a beloved pet is challenging for any family, but this age-by-age guidance from a CHOC licensed marriage and family therapist can help parents navigate these important conversations.

What is grief?

Grief is an exceptionally painful process consisting of a variety of characteristics: emotional, physical, cognitive and behavioral responses, says Barbara Allen. Grief and the process of grieving include an array of negative emotions: sadness, guilt, self-reproach, anxiety, fear, loneliness, anger and more.

An important aspect of grief is that nobody processes it or experiences it in the same way.  Acceptance is the ultimate goal because there is nothing we can do to bring back the person, Barbara says.

Beliefs about death and grief are deeply influenced by a family’s culture, religion and spirituality, but a child’s age factors heavily into how they comprehend the concept of death.

Infants to 2-year-olds

What to expect from them

  • Infants can feel the emotions in the home and do not have language to express what they are feeling.
  • They need to continue to feel safe and keep to a regular routine.
  • As they grow older, they often feel left out due to not having any memories of the loved one.

What to do or say

  • If possible, create a photo album of the loved one and have family members and friends write stories of how the loved one thought about and loved the infant.

2- to 4-year-olds

What to expect from them

  • They think that death is reversable.
  • They may think they can “wish” the person or pet to return and wonder if they will die too.
  • Because of this, it’s important to use concrete facts when speaking with younger children. For example, say, “They are no longer breathing or moving,” “They are not hurting or sad,” or “They are not coming back.”
  • Use the words dead and died. Words like “passing” and “gone to a better place” can be confusing.
  • They want to know that their world won’t change and that their routine will be safe.
  • They talk about death to anyone and say things that most adults would not even to strangers: “My mommy is dead and it’s sad” or “My mommy is dead and she will not come back.” All of this expression is OK and a way for them to process what has happened.
  • They may show their grief through play, motion, art or music due to their limited vocabulary

What to do or say

  • Help them develop their emotional vocabulary through books and pictures so they have language to express themselves.
  • They may regress and not be able to do tasks they once knew how to do.
  • Give them choice to help them feel control in their lives.

5- to 8-year-olds

What to expect from them

  • They likely understand that death is permanent.
  • They may feel that their thoughts and wishes caused the person to die.
  • They might still expect to see the person or pet.
  • Use concrete language such as “mommy died” or “their heart stopped working.”
  • Be ready to answer the same question over and over again.
  • They may not be able to complete tasks that they were previously able to do.

What to do or say

  • Provide opportunities for energetic play as many children this age and younger hold their feelings in their bodies and physical exercise helps them get these feelings out.
  • Help to increase their emotional vocabulary by using age-appropriate books and pictures about emotions or death.
  • Give them choice to help them feel control over their lives.

8- to 12-year-olds

What to expect from them

  • They understand that death is permanent and start to think about how this will affect them in the future.
  • They might feel that it was their fault due to not being nice to the person, or being angry at them.
  • They start to feel that the world is no longer safe.
  • They may have difficulty concentrating.
  • They may withdraw from social activities.
  • They may be clingy with other family members due to fear that they will die too.

What to do or say

  • Work to ensure predictability of life by sticking to previous routines.
  • Use the words like “dead” or “died” and answer questions accurately.
  • Listen well and validate their feelings and experiences, do not offer advice unless asked.
  • Offer choices to help them feel control over their lives.

13- to 18-year-olds

What to expect from them

  • They are able to understand the abstract concepts around death.
  • They may be exploring philosophical questions around the meaning of life, spirituality, or how to explain traumatic events.
  • They may withdraw from family and use their peers or a few close friends for support.
  • They may get involved in risky behaviors like using drugs or alcohol, or reckless driving.
  • They may have difficulty concentrating and have sleep disruptions.
  • They may be uncomfortable having discussion with adults.
  • They can have confusion over roles in the family or can be expected to take the role of the loved one who died.
  • They may have thoughts of suicide or self-harm.

What to do or say

  • Maintain a daily routine and be flexible when needed to allow for expression of grief.
  • Offer choices to help them feel a sense of control over their lives.
  • Answer questions honestly.
  • Do not offer advice unless asked and validate their feelings and experiences.
  • If possible, connect them with other adults in your family or community that they may be able to use as supports (coaches, teachers, aunt, uncle).
  • Ask open-ended questions or “Help me understand what this is like for you.”

Take some time

Everyone needs time to mourn, but if the child’s grief begins to significantly impact their behavior or well-being, parents should consider reaching out to their pediatrician for support.

Additionally, parents should be gentle on themselves, as they are likely grieving as well. Don’t hesitate to reach out to a friend, loved one or mental health professional if you need to talk about your feelings.

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