Explaining death to a child
Explaining the death of a loved one to a child is never easy. Death can be a confusing concept for children to understand and may provoke many difficult questions. The way you break the news of a death to a child will depend on a number of factors, including their age and their relationship with the deceased.
Psychologists have researched how children comprehend the concept of death at different stages of development. Although every child’s grief will be different, their understanding of the loss of a loved one progresses as they mature.
At what age will a child begin to understand death
Generally, before around four years old a child will be unable to understand the permanence of death, and may believe death can be ‘cured’, for example by medicine, or may repeatedly ask when the deceased is returning.
It will be later still (usually around age seven) that they grasp nonfunctionality – that a dead person can no longer think, feel or behave like the living - and universality – that death will happen to everyone – even them. This is hardly surprising, since this last concept, in particular, can be difficult for many of us even as adults to fully grasp and accept.
Young children are especially prone to what’s called ‘magical thinking’, the superstitious belief that we can cause something to happen just by thinking or talking about it. A child whose loved one has died may need reassurance that nothing they did or said could have caused or indeed prevented the death and that they are in no way to blame for what has happened.
How to break the sad news
The news should be broken by the person closest to the child using simple, easy to understand words. It is important to be clear and to avoid euphemism. Phrases such as ‘gone to sleep’ are unhelpful and can be taken literally, leading the child to worry that anyone who goes to sleep will die. Similarly, when death occurs after an illness, a child can become concerned that everyone who becomes ill, even with a cold or tummy bug, is going to die as a result. Give context to the illness and death where possible.
Every child will react differently
Very often a child will be unsure how to react or behave following bad news and is likely to take their cue from the adults in their life. Reassure them that it’s natural to feel sadness, as well as a lot of other emotions including anger, but that it’s also okay to not feel sad all the time. Some children take a while longer than adults to process the news of a death and are likely to quickly go back to playing or whatever they were doing before they found out, seemingly experiencing little effect. Be prepared for the impact to affect them a little later and emphasise that they can ask you questions or talk about their feelings at any time.
It’s not unusual for children and young people to ‘act out’ following a bereavement, sometimes some months or even years later. They may become suddenly aggressive and destructive, or excessively withdrawn and morose. It is worth letting the school, other caregivers and their friends’ parents know about the loss so they too can keep an eye on any behaviour changes.
Be sure your young person has options in terms of who they can talk to, if they need to; in the case of a child who has lost a grandparent, for example, they may well be more acutely aware of their parent’s grief than you would imagine, and may avoid seeking support from the parent for fear of upsetting them.