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Talking to kids about death

Whether a child is experiencing the loss associated with the death of a family member or friend, or is seeing someone else in the household coping with grief due to a death, he or she will need help to understand what has happened and to process their feelings.

Mom talking to daughter

When it comes to death and grieving, a child may exhibit their feelings in a variety of ways. Accordingly, kids also have different requirements when it comes to what type of help they need to process the loss. My Health Alberta advises that a child’s age and level of emotional development are the best guiding factors in determining how to help them cope.

Expressing grief

Children may not express their grief in the same way adults do, and since they are often unable to find the appropriate words to say how they are feeling, they may instead react in a variety of different ways, such as withdrawing and becoming quiet, talking a lot or being unusually active, having tantrums or becoming irritable or defiant, regressing to behaviours associated with being younger (bedwetting, for example), becoming clingy or frightened or having difficulties at school.

Perception of death

The way children perceive death usually depends on their age and emotional level of maturity. Children age 2 and under do not understand death, of course, but may recognize differences in their environment, perhaps through changes in routine or by picking up on an adult’s grief or tension, and act “upset” as a result. Children from ages 3 to 6 often feel a sense of responsibility for a significant loss and may even think they did something wrong. They may become clingy, refuse to leave loved ones or exhibit regressive behaviour. From ages 6 to 10, children are usually able to understand what has occurred only to a degree, so there is a risk that they will “fill in the blanks” themselves inaccurately, which could lead to misplaced fear. Children 10 and older are able to perceive death closer to the way adults do and tend to seek out information with regard to the specifics of the loss.

How to help

Acknowledge feelings of grief and loss in a child, encourage and assist with expression and answer questions in an age-appropriate manner and in such a way as to avoid planting the seeds for irrational fears. For example, telling a child that a grandparent “just went to sleep” may cause them to become frightened of bedtime or anxious that someone else they love may go to sleep and not wake up. It’s important to provide a safe and secure environment for a child experiencing loss and to assist them through the grieving process in ways appropriate and specific to their age and emotional stage of development.

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