Helping Children of Different Ages Cope with a Death

Adults help children most when they express their own sorrow and respond to questions in a truthful, yet age-appropriate way.

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The understanding of time for preschoolers is limited. Even after the funeral, parents may be shocked by the question, "When is Aunt Rachael coming back?" Although the child may not fully understand the answer, your explanation should be, "Aunt Rachael cannot come back because she is dead." Try to emphasize again and again in words that the youngster can understand that death is not just a temporary phenomenon.

Many younger children think of death as accidental: One dies when run over by a car or attacked by robbers. Death is often associated with violence, particularly dismemberment. In their understanding, death is not inevitable--people may live forever if they are fortunate and careful.

What You Can Do

Some children may understand death as being less alive. For those three- to four-year-olds who seem to believe in the interchangeability of life and death, or believe that the dead are "waiting to live in another place," parents must listen to the children's thoughts, concerns, images, and experiences. Hear their questions: "Do dead people eat the same kinds of food we do?" "Can they watch television?" "Can they talk to each other?"

Repeat again and again that the person is not coming back to life and is not living in the cemetery. Explain that the death is not a punishment for bad behavior. Youngsters are rightly curious and anxious about death, with its separation from familiar people and the anxiety, terror, and fear which that separation brings. When words fail, touch them, hold them, show them your affection and love.

Ages Five to Nine

Because of their life experiences, youngsters this age are better able to understand the meaning of physical death. Death is final. Living things must die. But they may not think of it as happening to them. At this stage, they may neither deny death nor accept its inevitability. A compromise is made. Death is "real"--but only for others, the aged.

Some tend to consider death comes in the form of a person or spirit. Those who watch horror shows may believe death is a bogeyman, a skeleton, or a ghost that makes the rounds late at night and selectively carries away helpless victims.

What You Can Do

Children in this age range cope best when they receive simple, honest, and accurate information. If they desire, let them attend the funeral for that which is more visible and mentionable is clearly more manageable. Don't be afraid to show your grief. Adults' controlled behavior is more difficult for them to handle than expressed sorrow.

Ages 10 and Older

Now children can formulate realistic concepts based on observation. Death is not a person but a perceptible end of bodily life. A dog runs into the street and is hit by a car. The animal can no longer get up and play. Dead is dead. It is final and universal. It is brought about by natural as well as accidental causes. Death is that inevitable experience which happens to all, including the child.

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Earl A. Grollman

Rabbi Earl A. Grollman is an internationally known lecturer, writer, and grief counselor whose twenty-four books about death and other losses, including Living with Loss, Healing with Hope: A Jewish Perspective.