How to Help a Child Cope With the Death of a Loved One
There is nothing harder than helping your child understand and cope with the death of someone they love
We, at eFuneral, have posted several articles and videos on grief and mourning, but for advice on helping children cope with the loss of a loved one, we turned to Kathleen McCue, a child life specialist, author of How to Help Children Through a Parent’s Serious Illness, and Director of Children’s Programming at The Gathering Place, a cancer support center in Cleveland, Ohio.
According to Ms. McCue, you cannot protect your child from the experience of losing a loved one, and “it is important to remember that what you do now lays the groundwork for your child to be able to cope with loss throughout his or her life.” To start, Ms. McCue explains how children’s developmental level and cognitive skills may impact their understanding of death.
- Birth – 2 years: Infants and toddlers may perceive that adults are sad, but they do not have a real understanding of the meaning or significance of death.
- 3 years – 5 years: Preschoolers may interpret death as a separation or as a reversible event. They may expect that a person who dies will be able to return, or that the person will experience pain or hunger in the casket, or that someone is to blame for the death. Additionally, children at this age may link certain events and magical thinking with the causes of death. For instance, as a result of a car accident, some children may imagine that driving in a car may cause someone’s death.
- 5 years – 9 years: Elementary school children may be able to comprehend the finality of death. They begin to understand that certain circumstances may result in death. But, they may over-generalize, particularly at ages 5-6. For instance, a child at this age may think if people don’t use cars then people will not die. At this age, death is perceived as something that happens to others, not to oneself or one’s family.
- 10 years – 13 years: Middle school children have the cognitive skills to understand death as a final event that results in the cessation of all bodily functions. By the time they are in their mid-teens, children can fully grasp the meaning of death.
Talking to Children About Death, Dying, and Loss
- Be honest about death and dying. Even very young children can sense when parents are not being truthful, and they will wonder why you don’t trust them with the truth. Additionally, lies and half-truths do not help children understand death or loss. Nor do they help children through the healing process. The best way you can help your child develop effective coping strategies for life’s future tragedies or losses, is to be honest with them (at an age-appropriate level) about death.
- Help all children, regardless of age, understand loss and death – but keep it simple. Discuss inevitability (every living thing will die), irreversibility (once someone dies, he/she cannot come back to life), cessation (when someone dies, all living functions like breathing, eating, and moving stop), and causality (something, whether an illness or injury, always causes the body to stop working and for a death to occur). But have these conversations on a level that your child can understand.
- Don’t use euphemisms for words like death, dead, or die. But remember, you will likely have to tell the story over and over again, especially to young children. And your child will likely tell everybody what has happened in his or her life.
- Encourage your child to ask questions about loss and death. By asking questions, children are telling you that they need more information or need clarification on what you’ve told them. Don’t worry if you don’t have all the answers – just respect the questions and try to answer the questions or help your child come up with an answer.
Helping Children Cope with the Loss of a Loved One
- A child who is frightened about attending a funeral should not be forced to go. But, it may be helpful to honor the deceased loved one in some other way, such as lighting a candle, saying a prayer, making a scrapbook, reviewing photographs, or telling a story.
- Give children the opportunity to talk about their feelings and be a good listener. Let your child know that you want to understand what they are feeling and how you can be supportive. Sometimes children, especially very young children, are upset but cannot tell you what will be helpful. That’s alright – just give them the time and encouragement to share their feelings with you. Through such communication, parents help their children make sense of what happened and express their reactions to loss in constructive ways.
- Just as with adults, grieving is a process for children. Allow adequate time for your child to grieve. Pushing children to resume “normal” activities before they’ve had a chance to deal with their emotional pain may prompt additional problems. But, parents should also provide opportunities for play, and avoid change or disruption. Additionally, parents should expect play about death or separation or that involves anger or sadness, especially in young children.
- Just as with adults, children may not grieve in an orderly or predictable way. And, as with adults, it’s perfectly normal for children to grieve in their own way, at their own pace. Parents should make it clear that their children have permission to freely express their feelings. Keep in mind, even after a child has accepted the death, they may display feelings of sadness on and off over a long period of time – and that’s ok.
- Children need consistent, long-lasting, loving support to recover from the loss of a loved one. Try to develop multiple supports for children who suffer significant losses.
If your child shows one or more of the signs below over an extended period of time, they may have serious problems coping with the loss and may need professional help:
- An extended period of depression in which the child loses interest in daily activities and events
- Inability to sleep, loss of appetite, prolonged fear of being alone
- Acting much younger for an extended period
- Excessively imitating the dead person
- Rpeated statements of wanting to join the dead person
- Withdrawal from friends
- Sharp drop in school performance or refusal to attend school
Leah Yomtovian Roush is the Senior Manager of Strategic Development for Cleveland, Ohio-based eFuneral, a comprehensive and free online resource that enables those thinking about end-of-life to research, plan, and arrange a wide variety of funeral-related services. Leah is the editor of eFuneral's Online Resource Center, and she manages the company's marketing efforts and develops strategies for company growth. Leah also serves on the Boards of multiple non-profit organizations, helping them expand their reaches and increase their impacts.