Dealing with the death of someone close is difficult, no matter how old you are. For children and teens, it’s even more difficult. Helping your child cope with the death of a friend or loved one — or even a pet — depends on your child’s age. It depends on other factors, too, including your child’s personality, his or her relationship to the person who died, how that person died, and whether it is your child’s first-time experience with death.
Path to improved well being
Choosing the right words
Talk with your child about the death they’ve experienced. Some children may want to talk about it all the time. Some children may want to ignore their feelings. Some may feel the adults in their lives don’t want to talk about the loss. It’s important and healthy for everyone to discuss their feelings when they’ve experienced a death. Talking is not a one-time thing. You may need to have multiple conversations about a particular person’s death the same day, week, month, year, and beyond.
If your child is a baby, they will not understand death. However, if one of your baby’s parents has died, it will affect your infant. Babies might respond to the separation from that parent (particularly their mother) through poor eating and sleeping. Your baby may smile and babble less, or cry more. Spend extra time cuddling and soothing your baby. It will be important to share your own memories and photos of their parent as they grow. Despite the loss and never having known the parent who died, keeping his or her memory alive will bring happiness to your child.
With all other children, use words they understand at their age. For preschool or early elementary school, use clear words, such as “died” or “dead.” A young child will not understand terms such as “passed away.” Explain what death means. Tell your child it means a person’s body has stopped working — their heart has stopped beating, they have stopped breathing, they will never move, hear, see, speak, or feel again.
For older children and teens, continue to use clear words. Expand upon the information you share by including details about the death (accident, long illness, etc.). Keep those explanations simple. As children get older, they will be more familiar with the body’s organs and functions.
Your child may become fearful that people close to them will die soon. Regardless of who has died or how, tell your child that most people live to be very old. Remind them that doctors and medicine can help a lot of people get better.
Be prepared for questions
Your child may be confused about death. He or she may ask a lot of questions until they finally understand what has happened. Be patient and calm as you talk with your child. It helps to anticipate what your child might ask and to practice how you will respond. Many younger children want to know:
- If the person is coming back.
- If the person is in heaven or in another place, depending on your beliefs.
- If the person is cold or hungry.
- If they did something to make that person go away.
Don’t forget to ask your child if they understand what you are telling them as you are explaining death and answering their questions. Don’t be afraid to share your own feelings about losing your loved one or friend.
Celebration of life traditions
Some people refer to this as the funeral. However, viewing it as a celebration of life can make it less scary to your child. It’s important to include your child in the celebration of life activities if you can. Be prepared to answer more questions, especially if a casket is on-site. A young child may want to know if the person who died is really in the casket (if it is a closed casket funeral) or if that person is asleep (if it is an open casket funeral). Tell your child the funeral is a time to be happy about the person’s life while they were alive. This might be a good opportunity to explain your family’s religious beliefs about what happens after you die.
While loved ones and friends are important in your child’s life, don’t forget about the affect of a pet’s death. Children are very attached to their pets. They will experience sadness and loss, much they same way they do with people. Don’t ignore their feelings or tell them they are silly to be sad. They will have many questions, too. A pet’s death is something your child might experience multiple times in their childhood. Be sure to start a family tradition to honor a pet that has died.
Things to consider
- Sometimes, a death happens, tragically, through an accident, substance abuse, or suicide. Again, use clear, simple words to explain death at their level. If someone important to your child has died due to suicide or violence, consider whether your child’s age and personality can handle that information. When you tell your child about suicide, keep it honest and simple. Consider telling a very young child that the person who committed suicide decided to stop their body from working. Tell them that their mind was very sick. Sometimes that confuses you and causes you to make the wrong choices. No matter your child’s age, don’t provide scary details. Don’t hide the suicide from your child. Chances are they will have heard the term “suicide” before and they may overhear you or others talking about it. Additionally, your child might find out through the news or through the police arriving at your home (if it happened to someone living with you).
- Don’t hide your feelings or basic information. Not having information can lead to confusion and a wild imagination. That can be scarier than the truth.
- Most children think death happens with older people. When it happens to a sibling or another young person, it can be even more difficult to cope. Be sure to reassure your child that children rarely die at a young age. Explain what was different for the young child who died.
- School-age children and older are smart. They can search a person on the internet to learn more about the circumstances of a person’s death. That’s why it’s even more important to be honest and straightforward with your child.
- Consider your own reaction when talking with your child about death. Your child will react to your emotions. If you seem scared and upset, your child will react the same way. Be a good example of how to cope. If you child sees you abusing alcohol and acting out of control, it will scare your child and leave a lasting impression.
- If your child has an intellectual or developmental disability, keep your explanations simple and at your child’s level of understanding.
- Watch for signs that your child is not coping appropriately with a friend or loved one’s death. These signs might include anger, fear, clinging, being withdrawn, missing school or activities they once liked. If you are concerned that their emotions have not improved, talk to your doctor about seeing a counselor.
Questions to ask your doctor
- Will my child need medication to cope with a death?
- Should I force my child to attend a funeral if they don’t want to?
- Will my young child have life-long fears about death?
- How will a suicide affect my child?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.