Adults often wonder if they should talk to children about death. What should they say to a child when a loved one passes away? Unfortunately, adults often adopt tactics that attempt to isolate children from such situations, avoiding those topics and denying the finality of death.
When talking with children about death, one must understand their point of view. Children do not always think of death as adults do. However, this does not mean that children have no concept of death. Death-related themes appear frequently in children’s rhymes, songs, fairy tales and television. For example, “Ring around the Rosie” is an English song that arose from a plague or when the wicked stepmother orders the death of Snow White. These childhood stories are not necessarily morbid or unhealthy for children. In fact, these are wholesome experiences in which children can work through fears and anxieties related to death in a safe and distanced ways.
The study of the development of children’s understanding of death has gone on for decades and it is important to note that much still remains to be learned about this topic. A report by Hungarian psychologist Maria Nagy suggests that there are three developmental stages for children:
Stage 1: There is No Definitive Death
- Death is not seen as final
- Interpreted as a kind of ongoing living somewhere else
- Child still feels the pain of separation
Stage 2: Death = A Man
- Death is imagined as a separate person (grim reaper, skeleton, or ghost)
- Conceived of as final, but avoidable
- “You have to get sick before you die so I am never going to get sick.”
- With the unknown of what death is, some children feel anxiety and fear
Stage 3: The Cessation of Corporal Life
- Death is a process operating within us
- Children view death as both final and universal
In addition to these developmental stages adults must also keep in mind these variables: developmental level, life experiences, individual personality and patterns of communication and support.
Understanding how children view death can help with how children cope with bereavement and grief. Children do not react to loss or express their reactions as adults do and may not display their feelings as openly. Bereaved children especially need support, nurturance, and continuity in their lives. According to J. William Worden, the Harvard Child Bereavement Study established a more detailed list of children’s bereavement needs:
- Adequate information – clear and comprehensible information about a death
- Fears and anxieties addressed – to know that they will be cared for
- Reassurance that they are not to blame
- Careful listening – in the form of someone that will hear them out and not minimize their concerns
- Validation of their feelings – including respect for and safe ways to express individual reactions in their own ways
- Help with overwhelming feelings
- Involvement and inclusion – both before and after a death, with preparation and without being forced to join in
- Continued routine activities
- Modeled grief behaviors
- Opportunities to remember – both after a death and throughout life
A common question that I have received from adults when making funeral arrangements is if they should allow the children to take part in the funeral and burial services. Taking part in the rituals of the service can help children with their grief work. A basic rule is not to force a child to take part if they do not want to. The child should be told ahead of time what will occur at the visitation, service or burial; why we engage in these activities; and what their options are for participation.
Taking the time to understand how children process death and the issues they have with bereavement will help prepare the child for a healthy mourning process. As adults, we must make our knowledge, experience, insights and coping resources available to children. Communication is key to the process.