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Death: Helping Children Cope with the Death of a Loved One

When we lose someone important to us, many things change in our lives. The same is true for children. To help children cope with a death, we must understand how they think about death and what has changed for them.

No two children respond exactly the same way to the death of a loved one. Children are likely to respond to death differently and need different kinds of help, depending on their prior experience, their age, and what happens after the death.

Young Children

Children, ages 2 to 7, mainly miss the loved one who has died. They feel sad that they are not with the person anymore, as if they went on a long vacation. Even with careful explanation, do not be surprised if your 3-year-old asks when the dead person will visit. This does not mean your child believes in ghosts, simply that he or she does not understand that death is really the end. Understanding comes with continued patient explanation in simple terms. "Remember Sara, Grandma died. That means that we won't see her again."

Explain your family's spiritual beliefs about death in very simple terms. But be prepared for the likelihood, that your young child may repeat what you say and then behave like he/she does not understand what death means.

Make sure your child does not feel at fault Young children believe that their thoughts, feelings and words have magical power. All children are angry from time-to-time with people they love, particularly siblings. A young child who loses a loved one, will need help understanding that angry feelings or hateful wishes do not cause people to die. (Even older children and adults must be reminded of this truth from time-to-time).

Keep a normal routine for your child You may be concerned about how a death will affect your young child in the long run. You may wonder if they will be depressed later in life or if they will have emotional problems. Rest assured, that a child who has ongoing attention to his needs, a safe and stable routine, and reliable people who care about him, will not have long-term emotional problems.

To assure that a child feels secure, even with the loss of a parent, the child's well being must come first. After a death it is important that your child is allowed to share in the family grief process, but just as with adults he will cope best if returned to a normal routine as soon as possible.

Let your child grieve with adults, but not like adults Because young children do not understand that death is final, your preschooler may go on happily playing and going about regular activities, even after the death of someone very important to her. Young children should not be punished or scolded for not grieving like adults. Children will feel sad, as they become more aware of what death means in their life.

Children should not be shielded from the sad feelings of grieving adults. Yet, if you find that you are routinely turning to your child for comfort in grief, she may feel overburdened and frightened. If you have no energy to care for your child adequately in your grief, than it is important to ask for and find appropriate help. Unless you are seriously depressed, your child should not be sent away from you. Yet, it will be important to find considerable help from family and friends to spend time with your child, take your child to normal activities and attend to your child's needs.

Adults need to grieve and that grieving can take away important energy from the needs of a child. It is important for your child to know you are sad, but if you are unable to attend to your child's needs because of that sadness, please ask for help. There are many excellent bereavement counselors and therapists that can help you cope with your grief and help you get your family back on track.

School-Age Children

With the death of an important loved one or parent, expect that your school age child (ages 7-10) will have thoughts that you will die too. Help your child talk about his/her fears. Signs of such thoughts may be difficulty separating from you to go to school, many headaches and stomachaches, or even behavior problems It is important to ask your child what they are feeling and thinking and to reassure them, in a realistic way, that you are healthy or in other ways unlike the person who died.

School-age children often worry about their own health, especially after the death of a loved one to an illness or one who is also young. If your child says his/her head or stomach hurts, have your child examined by a doctor. At the same time, though, consider having your child see a child psychologist, social worker or counselor experienced in working with grieving children. Sometimes a few sessions of play therapy may help a child express their feelings and the physical pains go away, before more medical testing is needed.

Teenage Years

Teenagers think much like adults do about death. They know death is the end and that the dead person will not come back. At this age, religious beliefs can comfort the child. Yet the death of a parent or other important person while the teenager still needs them can be devastating. The teenager knows that the person will not come back and is not comforted by the magical thinking of younger years. I t is important that your teenager is welcome in the family's grieving process and is given opportunities to talk about the loss with adults who are also grieving. Expect that your child will have things to say that are difficult. Be open to the possibility that your child is angry with you or even the person who died. Allow opportunities for your child to talk about and have all of his/her feelings accepted.

Although, your teenager may wish to be alone more than usual after the death, seek counseling from a licensed mental health professional if your child:
  • withdraws for more than a week or two
  • experiences a change in school performance
  • begins having behavior problems.
Written by Dr. Gay Deitrich-MacLean

Ways Children Cope With Grief

When a family member dies, children react differently than adults. Preschool children usually see death as temporary and reversible, a belief reinforced by cartoon characters who "die" and then "come to life" again. Children between 5 and 9 begin to think more like adults about death, yet they still believe it will never happen to them or anyone they know.

Adding to a child's shock and confusion at the death of a brother, sister, or parent may be the unavailability of other family members. They may be so shaken by grief that they are not able to cope with the normal responsibility of child care.

Parents should be aware of normal childhood responses to a death in the family and alert to danger signals. It is normal during the weeks following the death of a family member for some children to feel immediate grief or persist in the belief that the family member is still alive. But long-term denial of the death or avoidance of grief is unhealthy and can surface later in more severe problems.

A child who is frightened of attending a funeral should not be forced to go. However, some service or observance, such as lighting a candle, saying a prayer, or visiting a gravesite, is recommended.

Once children accept the death, they are likely to display their feelings of sadness on and off over a long period of time, and often at unexpected moments. The surviving relatives should spend as much time as possible with the child, making it clear that the child has permission to show his or her feelings openly or freely.

The person who has died was essential to the stability of the child's world, and anger is a natural reaction. The anger may be revealed in boisterous play, nightmares, irritability, or a variety of other behaviors. Often the child will show anger toward the surviving family members.

After a parent dies, many children will act younger than they are. A child may temporarily become more infantile, demanding food, attention, and cuddling, and talking "baby talk."

Younger children believe they are the cause of what happens around them. A young child may believe a parent, grandparent, brother, or sister died because he or she had once wished the person dead. The child may feel guilty because the wish came true.

Some danger signals to watch for include:
  • an extended period of depression in which the child loses interest in daily activities and events
  • the inability to sleep, loss of appetite, or a prolonged fear of being alone
  • acting much younger for an extended period
  • excessively imitating the dead person
  • making repeated statements of wanting to join the dead person
  • withdrawal from friends
  • a sharp drop in school performance or refusal to attend school.
These warning signs indicate that professional help may be needed to enable the child to accept the death and to assist the survivors in helping the child through the mourning process.

Books on Death and Dying
Ages 3-8
The Empty Place; by Roberta Temes, Ph.D.; Small Horizons, 1992

The Fall Of Freddie The Leaf; by Leo Buscalia; Slack, 1982

Water Bugs And Dragonflies; by Doris Stickney; Pilgrim Press, 1982

Ages 4-8
About Dying: An Open Family Book For Parents And Children Together; by Sara Stein; Walker, 1983

The Dead Bird; by Margaret Wise Brown; Addison-Wesley, 1958

Gentle Willow; by Joyce Mills; Magination Press, 1993

Goodbye Rune; by Marit Kaldhol and Wenche Oyen; Kane/Miller Book Pub., 1987

Talking About Death; by Earl A. Grollman; Beacon, 1990

Ages 5-8
Very Best Of Friends; by Margaret Wild; Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990

A Bunch Of Balloons; by Dorothy Ferguson; Centering Corporation, 1992

Ages 5-11
The Saddest Time; by Norma Simon; A. Whitman, 1992

Badger's Parting Gifts; by Susan Varley; William Morrow, 1985

I Had A Friend Named Peter; by Janice Cohn; William Morrow, 1987

When I Die Will I Get Better? by Joeri and Piet Breebaart; Peter Bedrick Books, 1993

Remember The Secret; by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross; Celestial Arts, 1998

Ages 6-12
First Snow; by Helen Coutant; Knopf, 1974

Tell Me About Death, Tell Me About Funerals; by Elizabeth Corley; Grammatical Sciences, 1973

Blew And The Death Of The Mag; by Wendy Lichtman; Freestone, 1975

Talking About Death: A Dialogue Between Parent And Child; by Earl Grollman; Beacon Press


Ages 8-12
Charlotte's Web; by E.B. White; Harper and Row, 1952

The Big Wave; by Pearl Buck; J. Day Co., 1948

Death Is Natural; by Lawrence Pringle; Four Winds Press, 1977

Ages 9-12
The Kids' Book About Death And Dying (By And For Kids); by Eric Rofes; Little Brown & Co., 1985

Beat The Turtle Drum; by Constance Green; Viking Press, 1976

Little Men; by Louisa May Alcott; Macmillan, 1963

Little Women; by Louisa May Alcott; World, 1969

Ages 9-14
Bridge To Terabithia; by Katherine Paterson; Harper and Row, 1977

Forever Friends; by Candy Boyd; Viking/Penguin, 1985

A Taste Of Blackberries; by Doris Smith; Scholastic, 1976

On My Honor; by Marion Dane Bauer; Dell, 1986

I Know I Made It Happen; by Lynn Blackburn; Centering Corporation, 1991

Teenagers Talk About Grief; by Jene C. Kolf; Baker Book House, 1990

Because You Care: Practical Ideas For Helping Those Who Grieve; by Barbara Russell Chesser; Word Books, 1987

Coping With Death And Grief; by Marge Eaton Heegaard; Lerner, 1990

For Those Who Live; Helping Children Cope With The Death Of A Brother Or Sister; by Kathy Latour; Centering Corp., 1987

How Do We Tell The Children? A Parents Guide To Helping Children Cope When Someone Dies; by Dan Schaefer, Christine Lyons, and David Peretz; Newmarket Press, 1993

Life & Loss: A Guide To Help Grieving Children;by Linda Goldman; Accelerated Development, 1994

Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way To Explain Death To Children; by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen; Bantam, 1987

The Seasons Of Grief; by Dr. Donna A. Gaffney; Penguin, 1988

Compiled by Catherine Smith, MLS, medical librarian at the Family Health Library, The Children's Hospital, Denver, CO.

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