How to Help Children Understand and Cope With Death

How to Help Children Understand and Cope With Death

Children don’t have an innate sense of understanding for death or grief. Even if they understand the concept of mortality, it may seem very foreign to them until they lose a pet or a loved one. Helping your child understand what’s going on is important, but it can also be very challenging.

Here are some ways to make it easier on both of you.

Understand That Children Process Death Differently

First, you need to acknowledge the fact that children are going to process death differently than adults. Adults have had the benefit of a lifetime of education and experience, helping them understand what death is and introducing them to the topic of death iteratively. Additionally, adults have a clear sense of reality and established formulas for how to process information.

Children, in contrast, are venturing into totally unfamiliar territory. They’re very curious and capable of engaging with you, but they also have a limited understanding of reality and can explore new topics in a very disjointed, illogical way. This isn’t a problem. But you need to be aware of it.

Explain Things Accurately and Simply

The best thing you can do for your children is explain concepts as accurately and simply as possible. Don’t try to overcomplicate things, and don’t stray from reality. For example, if you’ve cremated your loved one, you can explain that this is a process that allows you to preserve your loved one’s remains in a way that helps you remember them forever.

It’s not always easy to get children to understand complex topics, especially when they’re as nuanced and life-changing as the death of a close family member. You don’t have to be perfect. You just have to be as clear and simple as you can be.

Tap Into Your Belief System

Different cultures see death in different ways. All of them are acceptable. Some cultures view death as an inescapable finality, while others consider it merely the next step in a long, potentially infinite journey. Feel free to tap into your religion, your background, and your other cultural beliefs as you explain death to your child.

Depending on your belief system, and the age of your child, it may also be prudent to explain how different cultures view death. Death is a mystery, even to adults, and older children may find comfort in a perspective that you don’t personally carry.

Start the Conversation in a Non-Stressful Time

When starting the conversation with your child, choose a time that isn’t stressful. If you have multiple family members staying over, and there’s a lot of chaos in the living room, don’t use this as an opportunity to pull your child aside and start explaining a complex concept to them. Instead, talk to them one-on-one in a quiet, peaceful environment. Try to make the atmosphere as comforting as possible and ensure you’re clear-headed enough to handle the conversation appropriately.

Encourage (and Answer) Questions

Children are very curious, and they’ll likely have many points of confusion about what death is, how it works, and how it has affected their loved ones. The best way to handle this curiosity is to encourage it. Allow your children to ask as many questions as they’d like, and try to answer those questions as clearly as possible. Encourage them to think actively about this topic, so they can discover and solidify the concept themselves.

Avoid Unnecessary Metaphors and Analogies

Sometimes, parents are tempted to use metaphors, analogies, or even outright lies to explain death to their children – such as explaining that a pet “went to live on a farm.” These can serve as temporary escapes, giving you an easy out to explain death in a way that’s both palatable and easy for children to understand. However, these aren’t great ways to explain death in the long term. You’re usually better off being straightforward, even if you have to leave out certain details or simplify certain ideas.

Consider Talking Over Multiple Conversations

This is a complex and difficult conversation – so much so that it may take multiple conversations to truly resolve this. If your child seems bored, confused, or upset, consider taking a break and coming back to the topic in the future.

Acknowledge and Respect Emotions

Children react to death in very different ways. Some become overwhelmed with negative emotions. Some become confused and anxious because of their lack of understanding. And some are completely ambivalent, potentially because they’re not ready to grasp the finality of death. No matter what your child’s emotions are, it’s important to acknowledge and respect them. Talk to them about their emotions and help them process them.

Share Stories

As many adults naturally understand, one of the best ways to process grief and connect with others who are grieving is to share stories about the loved one who passed. Spend some time with your child talking about your favorite memories, and encourage them to do the same.

Provide a Creative Outlet

Children don’t have much experience processing thoughts and feelings on their own, so anything you do to make it easier should be a net positive. One option is to provide your child with a creative outlet, giving them a distraction to focus on while also giving them a chance to express their feelings abstractly. Art, music, and crafts are all viable options.

Model Calmness

Children look to us as role models, and they often take on both the feelings and behaviors that we emanate. If you’re distressed, panicked, and having trouble keeping yourself together, your children will be more likely to follow in your footsteps. That’s why it’s important to work through your own feelings and model calmness and collectedness for your children. That doesn’t mean you have to be happy or pretend you’re not feeling anything; it just means you have to remain in control of your actions.

Consider Joining a Grief Support Group

You could also consider joining a grief support group, especially if your child is struggling with their feelings even after you’ve worked with them consistently. Reaching out to other people who are going through the same thing can provide immense value, even to young people.

Helping children understand and cope with death isn’t easy. But with a strong, competent parent like you, following strategies like these, they’ll be in a much better position to move on healthily.

Emily Walton
Emily Walton, a post-graduate with a Master's in Public Health, has dedicated her career to enhancing health accessibility. Joining our team in 2021, she has contributed significantly with her insights drawn from over a decade in public health administration. She is known for her engaging articles. Her commitment to demystifying health issues extends beyond her professional life, as she frequently hosts community health workshops. In her spare time, she is an avid marathon runner and enjoys volunteering at local health clinics.

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