How children understand death
Most young children are aware of death on some level, even if they don’t fully understand what it really means and how it will affect them. Interestingly, death is not an uncommon theme in children’s films and cartoons (think Bambi or The Lion King) so most children will have at least a passing relationship with the idea.
However, experiencing first-hand grief of someone close to them is vastly different and is of course more likely to be an extremely confusing and worrying time for them. As adults, we have a more solid grasp of the inevitability of death and the potential impact on our emotional wellbeing. We can use language to express our emotions in a way that children can’t. As a parent or other important adult in a child’s life, you can’t protect them from the inevitability of loss, but you can help them to feel safe while they process the death of their loved one.
Children and concepts of death
The following milestones are generalisations, and an atypically mature understanding of death can occur if a child directly experiences a traumatic loss at a very young age.
- The irreversibility of death is understood from about the age of four, although some children as young as three understand this concept. Before the awareness of irreversibility develops, a child might refer to a dead person as if they’ve taken a trip or are having a nap. Before the age of four, it’s common for children to believe that their loved one will come back to life at a later stage, perhaps through the use of magic or rituals.
- The concept of non-functionality is typically understood between the ages of five and seven. Children who understand non-functionality accept the idea that a dead body can no longer do things that a living body can do. Before this stage of understanding, it’s common for children to wonder if a dead person can still eat, walk, dream or sleep.
- The universality of death is something that even adults can struggle with, although we understand that death will come to every living thing in time. Before children grasp this fact, they may believe that there are certain groups of people who are protected from death such as their parents, siblings or teachers. As children mature, they start to understand that no-one is protected from death and that they will eventually lose someone they love. However, the last stage of acceptance for all human beings is recognising that they themselves will die.
How to help a child or young person through a bereavement
Allowing and encouraging a child to express their pain and sorrow is healthy. It will not only help them to work through their grief in a healthy way but will also encourage them to develop coping skills that will serve them well in the future. How we are supported through a first bereavement can become the blueprint for how we cope with subsequent losses.
- Recognise that children grieve differently than adults – and it is okay. A younger child might go from crying one minute to wanting to go and play with their toys the next, but this doesn’t mean that they’re not sad – they’re just processing their feelings in manageable chunks. On the other hand, a teenager might shut down completely and refuse to talk to anyone but their friends about their loss.
- Appreciate that even very young children can feel depressed, guilty, anxious and angry – just as adults can. However, the younger they are, the less likely they will be able to tell you what they’re feeling so their emotions may come out in regressive ways such as bed wetting or baby talk. When words are difficult for them to find, encourage them to use other helpful outlets for self-expression such as drawing, painting or music.
- Don’t overshare. Children don’t need to know the details in the way that adults do, so offer only the basics and ask if they have any questions. Put the ball in their court and respond in a forthright manner.
- Avoid euphemisms. It can be tempting to soften the blow by telling a child that their loved one has “gone away on a trip”, or “is sleeping”, but this will only cause them confusion and worry. If a child believes that their loved one is simply sleeping but sees the adults around them in distress, they may begin to fear going to sleep. Children are extremely literal and deserve the truth even if it’s painful.
- Ensure that the child can count on their usual routine as much as possible. This is not to say that a child must go back to school immediately after a death, but most children find solace and safety in routine no matter how mundane. It’s important for children to understand that they can still count on their normal activities such as a set bedtime, bath time and mealtimes. So, maintain their usual structure. It’s also useful to postpone any disruption to their lives, such as a holiday, until they have settled into the new shape of the family.
- Be honest about your own feelings. If you’re sad, don’t fear crying in front of your child. You’re expressing real emotions and this is a healthy thing for children to see. If you feel like your emotions are overwhelming you, take time out to yourself to process your sadness. Don’t avoid mentioning the deceased in front of your child. Their loved one is very much present in their heart and mind, and it’s important that they understand that it’s positive to remember our loved ones.
- Speak to your child’s school and let them know that your child has been bereaved. You don’t need to go into detail if you don’t want to, but forewarned means that your child’s teachers can keep an eye on them and let you know if they see any evidence that he or she is struggling. It’s an extra layer of safeguarding.
- Whether or not your child attends the funeral is entirely between you and them. Never force a child to go to a funeral, nor ban them from attending. Before a decision is made, have a conversation with them about what they can expect. Explain what a funeral is, who will be there, and if they will see the body of their loved one. Explain that they may see you and other people crying, and they may cry too – let them know that this is natural and expected. Ask them if they’d like to attend, and if they decline, don’t cajole them. Older children might also appreciate an opportunity to read something at the funeral, while others might like to help choose the flowers and music.
Recognise that no matter how much you’ve prepared your child for a funeral, he or she might become unexpectedly distressed on the day so have a plan to take them outside for a breather if they need one. There are also other ways to say goodbye. A gathering after the funeral or planting a tree in memory of the loved one can be good substitutes if you feel that attending the funeral will cause your child undue distress.
Further resources you might find helpful
- What to do when someone dies explains the practical steps to take.
- Understanding the types of grief explains how grief can affect us.
- Supporting yourself and others through a bereavement offers ideas on how to make the grieving process easier on both yourself, and those who need your support.
Organisations which you might find helpful
For parents and carers of children and young people who have been bereaved:
Childhood Bereavement Network childhoodbereavementnetwork.org.uk
Click for more information on the Childhood Bereavement Network
A range of online resources for parents, carers and others who are supporting a child or young person through a bereavement.
Local support group network for any parent or family member wanting to share experiences of helping a child through bereavement.
Winston’s Wish winstonswish.org 0808 8020 021
Click for more information on Winston's Wish
A confidential helpline offering emotional support and advice for any parent, carer, or other adult who is helping a child or young person through a bereavement.
For bereaved children and young people:
Child Bereavement UK childbereavementuk.org 0800 028 8840
Click for more information on Child Bereavement UK
A confidential helpline offering emotional support for children and young people (up to the age of 25) who have been bereaved.
The helpline is also available for any parent, carer, or other adult who is helping a child or young person through a bereavement.
Hope Again hopeagain.org.uk 0808 808 1677
Click for more information on Hope Again
Cruse Bereavement Care’s service for children and teenagers offers a range of services designed specifically for those who have been bereaved at a young age:
A confidential helpline for any young person who has been bereaved.
Advice and guidance for parents, carers, educators and health professionals.
Referrals for face-to-face counselling via the Cruse Bereavement Care counselling network.
Downloadable information on all aspects of bereavement.
An online discussion forum for young people to share their experiences of loss.
After the death of a sibling (for children, young people and their parents):
Sibling support siblingsupport.co.uk 0800 028 8840
Click for more information on Sibling support
A helpline run by siblings for siblings, offering children and young people emotional support after their loss.
Advice and guidance for parents and carers who are supporting a child or young person through a bereavement.
Downloadable information on all aspects of sibling bereavement.