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Children’s Understanding of Death

When talking to a child about a death there are three important things to think about:

  • What does the child want to know?
  • What does the child need to know?
  • What can the child understand?
  • What does the child want to know?

In general, when a child asks questions about death:

  1. Give honest, brief answers to questions.
  2. Do not give long or complicated answers, a child can absorb limited amounts of
    information. Adults can often say too much, overwhelming the child with information. It is
    generally better to begin the dialogue with some basic information and let the child’s
    questions direct the conversation.
  3. Keep responses at the child’s level of understanding (to be discussed later).
  4. Listen.
  5. Accept the child’s feelings. Every feeling is a legitimate feeling. Telling a child they must
    not feel angry, guilty, or otherwise discounting emotions shuts down the process of the child
    expressing those feelings.

What does the child need to know?

  1. If a child is left uninformed he or she may imagine or visualize things even worse than what
    is the truth.
  2. The loss was not his fault. Many young children blame themselves after a death. They feel
    that their own thoughts or behaviors may have brought on the death.
  3. Death is the final, natural part of life: death is not a form of punishment.
  4. The death was not because the one who died wanted to leave him/her.
  5. The child has others who care and will take care of him/her.
  6. The child is loved.

What can the child understand?

There are five major concepts that constitute an understanding of death.

  1. Universality or inevitability involves an understanding that all living things, including
    oneself, eventually will die and that no one can escape death. Along with this concept
    comes the question of when do people die?

    • Does every one die?
    • Do children and animals die too?
    • Can I or the people I know and love avoid dying?
    • Can you or I die at any time?
  2. Irreversibility or finality involves the understanding that death cannot be reversed by
    magic, medicine, food and water, or other means.

    • How long do you stay dead?
    • Can dead people come alive again?
  3. Non-functionality or the cessation of bodily functions involves the recognition that death
    ends all movement, feeling, sensation, thought and other abilities.

    • Can you see or hear noises or feel the heat and cold when you are dead?
    • Are dead people sleeping?
    • Do dead people eat, play, or go to the bathroom?
  4. Causality involves the understanding of why death occurs. Younger children tend to
    attribute death more to external causes, such as guns or accidents, while older children
    recognize internal causes such as old age, illness, or some other biological factors.

    • Why do people die?
    • What caused him/her to die?
    • Can someone die because someone wished that they would die?
  5. Spirituality of death involves the mental and emotional capacity to seek an understanding of what happens
    after death.

    • Where does your soul go when you die?
    • Will I ever come back to life again?
    • Even though my body dies, will my spirit go on to a better life?

Learn about Children’s Age Appropriate Understanding of Death.

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