Children's Understanding of Death
The way a child understands death varies according to their age and developmental level. As a child grows and develops, he or she increases their understanding of death and may have new questions about the loss. Some children might experience a delayed reaction while others respond immediately. Children, especially young ones, don't have the language to put their thoughts and feelings into words and may often express their grief in physical and/ or behavioral ways. Children may also grieve “in spurts,” as they are unable to tolerate grief for long periods of time. Here are some general guidelines about children's understanding of the concept of death.
BIRTH TO THREE YEARS: Even infants grieve. If there were people who have been consistently present in a baby's life, the child will have a sense of something missing. As children grow, they will begin to form language and say words that reveal the beginning of understanding.
THREE TO FIVE YEARS: Children at this age often don't accept death as a permanent process. They may think of death as having an ending and may ask questions about when the loved one is coming back. Children need a concrete explanation that the body has stopped working and won't start working again. They also need reassurance in the face of their parent's grief, letting them know that mommy or daddy is sad right now because the loved one died but that they will be okay. Children may also engage in "magical thinking" believing that their thoughts and wishes are very powerful. If young children had negative or angry thoughts about the loved one prior to their death, they may think that they caused the death. Children need to know that anger is an emotion that we all have and that they did nothing to cause the death.
SIX TO NINE YEARS: Children begin to grasp the concept of death and understand that the person will never come back. But they have many questions and often ask these questions repeatedly. These questions are a child's way of coming to terms with the loss. We need to answer these questions simply and accurately even if our answer is "I don't know." It is important for children to feel comfortable asking these questions in a safe, supportive environment.
NINE TO TWELVE YEARS: Children begin to understand that death is an inevitable part of living and that death may come earlier than expected. They begin to understand death in a more logical way. These children may express feelings through behavior but they can also act as if they are not at all affected by the death. They should be encouraged to share their memories of the loved one and they need to know that someone is there if they want to talk about their feelings and thoughts.
ADOLESCENCE: Most teenagers have an adult level of understanding about death. They have very intense emotions and often ponder more philosophical questions such as "what is life?" "What is death?" " Who am I?" "What is my place in the world?" They begin to question religious beliefs. When adolescents experience a death, they may be reluctant to talk about it. They often feel out of control and may become angry or deny feelings of sadness or loss, and in some cases, act out or engage in risk-taking behaviors. Teenagers may avoid family and draw close to friends and peers for support and help during this time. While firm limits need to be set for their safety, they also need the reassurance of love and support of family and friends.
HELPING CHILDREN GRIEVE
It may be very difficult for grieving parents to find the strength to help their other children, especially in the first weeks after their loss. But children need to know that their grief is normal, and they need to express what they're feeling. You may want to ask other adults in your circle of family and friends to assist and support you during this time of pain and sorrow.
Give children permission to express their feelings. They often withhold their feelings because they think that talking about the death will cause pain to others. Tell them that grief is a normal way of coping with a devastating loss. Ease the way for them. Children and adolescents may not have the words to explain what they're going through.
Here are some suggested ways adults can provide children with opportunities to release feelings:
Rituals - candle lighting, praying
- Artistic expression - drawing a picture of how you feel
- Sharing memories and stories together Remembering your loved one and crying together. Listen carefully to what your children say.
- Paying attention helps them know that their feelings are normal as they attempt to come to terms with the loss. Allow your children to teach you about their experience of grief and give them permission to let you know what they need.
Be alert for children exhibiting these reactions:
- Aggressive behavior
- Withdrawal, or very passive behavior
- Changes in eating or sleeping patterns
- Prolonged periods of weeping
- Changes in school grades
- Symptoms associated with the illness or injury of the deceased
- Repeated expressions of guilt or fear
You may want to seek help if these reactions are persistent and ongoing.