How Do You Explain Death to a Child?

 

Hi everyone! Sorry it has been quite a while since my last post. I have been very busy completing and sending out child life internship applications, and life has just been busy in general. As we have all seen over the year, there have been many celebrity deaths. While this may not surprise us, we all have had someone pass away that we knew at some point within our lives. It doesn’t have to be somebody famous like Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds or David Bowie. It can be anybody.

So how do children react to death and is there any logical way you can explain this process to a child in a way they will understand?

Children have no real concept of death. However, each age believes in something different in regards to death. For instance,

Three to Six years

Three to six years of age have “magical thinking.” Children who believe this believe their thoughts, actions and words caused the death; or death is punishment for bad behavior. They believe that death is reversible. They believe that the person is going to wake up, like Sleeping Beauty. This age believes that someone should be able to kiss the “sleeping person” and they should just wake up.

Six to Nine years

Children who are six to nine years of age begin to understand the concept of death, but not quite. Children of this age believe that death is contagious and other loved ones will “catch it” and die too. Not only that, but children will blame themselves for this individual’s death. They will say things like “If only I had been good they wouldn’t have died.” Or something of that nature.

Nine to Thirteen years

At this age, children’s understanding of death is closer to adults understanding. They are aware that death is final and the impact death has on them. Children are concerned how their world will change with this certain loss “Who will take me to the father daughter dance?”, their questions have seized and have delayed reactions.

Thirteen to Eighteen years  

Adolescents have adult understanding about death. Death is viewed as the enemy, increased vulnerability due to many other changes and losses simultaneously occurring, difficulties with long term plans, questions religious/spiritual beliefs and is in denial.

Throughout each of these ages and stages, how does one explain death to a child? For young children, Alison Caporimo from Buzzfeed has come up with a list of common causes of death and how they can be explained to young children.

  • A heart attack is when your heart stops working and it can’t move your blood through your body.
  • Kidney failure is when your kidneys — which are washing machines for your blood — stop working, your blood gets dirty, and it makes your body not feel good.
  • Overdose is when you have a sickness in your brain called addiction (when you really like something, but it’s bad for you), it makes you take medicine that’s not good for you, and you take too much of it — but not all medicine is bad for you.
  • Murder is when someone chooses to make your body stop working.
  • Suicide is when you choose to make your own body stop working — and sometimes a sickness in your brain called depression (when you are really sad about something and nothing can make you happy again) can make you wish that your body would stop working.

 

For the following ages, I have listed how you can support the child.

Three to Six years

  • Keep routines normal
  • Provide opportunities to play, draw and read to express how they are feeling
  • Explain in kid friendly words about death (do not sugar coat it)
  • Model health coping behavior
  • Comfort magical thinking
  • Avoid cliché (i.e. well at least you have another brother or something in regards to a pet if a pet has passed)

Six to Nine years

  • Talk to child
  • Ask questions
  • Make sure that the child does not feel responsible in any way
  • Identify certain fears the child may have
  • Provide opportunities to play, draw and read to express how they are feeling
  • Help the child hope in a health way
  • Help them with positive memories of the deceased
  • Avoid cliché (i.e. well at least you have another brother or something in regards to a pet if a pet has passed)

Nine to Thirteen years

  • Encourage discussion about their concerns
  • Be honest with children when you do not have an answer
  • Model healthy coping behaviors
  • Address impulse towards toward acting out and let them identify their feelings
  • Avoid cliché (i.e. well at least you have another brother or something in regards to a pet if a pet has passed).

Thirteen to Eighteen years

  • Don’t assume they can handle themselves. Be there for them, because like you, they need someone to talk to and to reach out to during this hard time
  • Be there for them, but do not be pushy
  • Help find a proper coping group for the child (if they want to talk with a group)
  • Be honest when you don’t know the answer
  • Determine if they feel helpless
  • De-romanticize death (it’s nothing like it is in the movies)
  • Avoid cliché (i.e. well at least you have another brother or something in regards to a pet if a pet has passed).

Having a love one pass away is hard at any age. Helping a child and even an adult cope in a healthy way will make the loss bearable. Until next time!

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