Supporting Young Children After A Death

Often times, as adults we want to protect young children with everything we have. When someone dies it may be difficult to have a conversation with a young child regarding the death. We try to use gentler words such as “passed away, he/she is sleeping, or in a better place." But, something to be aware of is that children are very concrete.  Therefore, our language should be as concrete as possible.  Use accurate words such as died, death, cancer, car accident, etc. If they don't hear these words from you they will most likely hear them from another adult in their life which can lead to confusion.  Children also overhear a lot of conversations that adults have with one another or by another adult in their life. Therefore, children receive information best when they hear it from the adults closest to them. This creates a trusting relationship. Here are some helpful hints and conversation starters when talking with young children about a recent death:

You may start a conversation with a child by opening with a statement similar to this: "Come sit down with me. I want to talk with you about something. I have some sad news. ________ died today. He/She went to Heaven."

Young children developmentally do not understand the finality of death and may ask questions like, "When will I see ________?" You can respond with, "When someone dies, you will no longer see him/her. Their heart stops beating and they stop eating and breathing."

Here are some possible reactions of young children as well as some helpful hints on how adults can support them:

Children 2-4 years of age

- View death as reversible or as abandonment

- Have limited language skills

- May have intense brief reactions; return to baseline quickly

- May ask questions repeatedly

How adults can help:

- Give reassurance and comfort

- Provide short, honest answers

- Repeat answers

- Keep routines consistent

- Provide play opportunities to express grief

Children 4-7 years of age

- May still view death as reversible

- Learning language skills

- May think their thoughts or wishes caused death, may feel guilty

- May ask more specific questions

How adults can help:

- Provide answers to questions - books may be helpful at this age

- Provide physical outlets for grief expression, kicking a ball, punching a pillow

- Reassure child that they did not cause death

Talking with children about death is difficult because it is highly emotional for us as adults. Take a moment before the conversation and ask the Lord for His guidance. He knows your hurt and pain. He is with you.