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Death: Help your Child Deal with Death and Grief

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KEY POINTS

  • Chances are that someone important to your child will die before your child reaches adulthood.
  • How you talk with your child about death depends on their age. Help your child feel safe and comfortable. Let your child know that it’s OK to feel sad about the death and that it’s good to talk about it and remember the person or pet who died.
  • Let your child ask questions and express feelings. If you or your child are having a hard time, grief counselors and therapists can help.

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Chances are that someone important to your child, such as a grandparent or great-grandparent, will die before your child reaches adulthood. Death can be scary, and friends and others may tell your child stories about death that may not be true. It helps if you talk with your child about death before the loss of a loved one. Stories in books, children's movies, TV shows, or the death of a pet can all be ways to start talking about what death means. Talk with your child in ways that they will understand.

Your child will use you as a role model for how to grieve. Help your child feel safe and comfortable. Give them lots of love, support and reassurance. Try to keep family routines as normal as possible and keep setting usual limits on your child’s behavior. Let your child know that it’s OK to feel sad about the death and that it’s good to talk about it and remember the person or pet who died.

After someone dies, consider including your child at the funeral or memorial service. Children are comforted when they know the routines and customs. Your child will have an idea of what to expect if you simply and honestly explain what they will hear and see before, during, and after the service.

If your child does not attend the funeral, find other ways for them to say goodbye. For example, write a story, release balloons, plant a tree, or have a fundraiser in memory of the person who died. It may help your child to gather pictures or other special items and create a memory book or box. It’s OK to talk about the person who died.

How can I help my child cope with death?

How you talk with your child about death depends on their age. Your child may have periods of grief as they grow up, especially during certain milestones in life, such as starting school, holidays, or graduating. Grieving is a process that takes time.

Infants and toddlers (birth to age 2)

Children this age do not understand death, but they are aware of the loss of a parent or caregiver. They can also be affected by your sadness. Babies and toddlers may react with increased crying, clinging, or tantrums, or with changes in sleeping or eating patterns.

Try to keep to a normal routine as much as possible.

Very young children (ages 2 to 4)

Be careful not to tell your child that the person has gone to sleep or that the family “lost” a grandparent. Your young child may be afraid to go to sleep or may keep asking when the person will be back. They may worry about who will care for them. It’s OK to use the words “death” and “died” and to explain that those words mean that the body stopped working and cannot be fixed. Let your child ask questions and express feelings. Keep explaining in simple terms.

Children this age are not able to put their feelings into words and may react to loss with changes in behavior. You may notice more whining, acting out, trouble sleeping or eating, or a return to bedwetting or thumb-sucking. Playing with dolls and puppets, pounding play dough, or making up stories may help your child deal with grief.

Young children (ages 5 to 8)

Children between the ages of 5 and 8 may think that somehow they caused death by wishing it would happen or by not doing what they were told to do. This "magical thinking" can make your child feel guilty. Help your young child understand that angry feelings or hateful wishes do not cause people to die.

If someone in your family is seriously ill, let your child visit and help take care of them. Drawing a picture or giving Grandma a drink of water lets your child feel like they are helping, which can lessen guilty feelings. If there are tubes and medical equipment, tell your child about them before your visit and explain how it helps Grandma feel more comfortable.

After a death, try to keep a normal routine for your child. Be ready to let your child talk and share their feelings. Let your child play when they need to. Let your child know that they do not need to feel guilty when they are happy or is having fun. Children often express their feelings through play, drawing, or story-telling. Help your child use these activities to express grief, anger, and other emotions.

Your child may not grieve in the same way as adults. They may withdraw, act like a baby, have nightmares, or be afraid of the dark. Don’t punish or scold your child for not grieving like an adult. Your child may feel worried and scared. Make sure they feel loved and secure, especially after the death of a parent.

School-age children (ages 9 to 12)

School-age children are starting to understand that death is final. Your child may change the subject or ignore you when you try to talk with them about death. It’s OK to wait for your child to bring up the topic again.

After the death of a loved one or schoolmate, your child may be afraid that you will die or that they will get sick and die. Help them talk about their fears. Reassure your child, in a realistic way, that there will always be someone to take care of them.

Help your child know that normal grief often involves other emotions such as anger, guilt, and frustration. It may help them to talk with someone outside the family such as a teacher or clergy member.

If your child doesn’t want to leave home to go to school, or has new symptoms such as headaches and stomachaches, talk with their healthcare provider. You may also want to contact a counselor experienced in working with grieving children. Some cities also have support groups for children who have lost a parent or caregiver. Sometimes a few sessions of play therapy can help your child express their feelings and lessen symptoms.

Teens

Teens know death is final and that the person who died will not come back. Although your teen knows that everyone will die, they may not believe that death will touch them. The death of a parent or other important person can leave them feeling abandoned and lonely. Your child may argue, scream, or withdraw.

Don't be afraid to talk honestly about death and dying with your teen. Your child needs to hear what you have to say. At this age, religious beliefs can bring comfort but may also bring questions about faith. It’s important to give your teen a chance to talk about a death with adults who are also grieving. Some teens may turn to drugs, alcohol, or other risky behaviors. Watch for this and give your teen plenty of chances to talk about all of their feelings. Give them your full attention and show that you are listening.

Your child may find it helpful to talk with someone outside the family or attend a teen grief support group. He or she may also find it helpful to keep a journal, exercise or play sports, visit with friends, or listen to calming music.

When is it important to get help from a mental health professional?

Get help from a mental health professional if your child:

  • Seems to need to be alone more than usual for longer than a week or two
  • Doesn't seem to care about school or other activities that used to be important to them
  • Has trouble sleeping, doesn’t eat, or starts having behavior problems, such as destroying things
  • Shows signs of using drugs or alcohol
  • Seems overly sorrowful or talks about suicide

You also need to grieve. If you have no energy to care for your child, ask for help. Family and friends can spend time with your child, take them to activities, and attend to their needs. Grief counselors and therapists can help you cope and help you get your family back on track.

You can get more information from:

Developed by Change Healthcare.
Pediatric Advisor 2019.4 published by Change Healthcare.
Last modified: 2019-09-17
Last reviewed: 2019-09-16
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2018 Change Healthcare LLC and/or one of its subsidiaries
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