A child’s general concept of death evolves with age- growing in tandem with their knowledge of the world around them.
As they get older, children start comprehending all of the key components of death:
-Irreversibility; death is permanent, the person will not be coming back.
-Non Functionality: once dead, a person does not walk, talk, eat, or dream anymore.
-Causality: the abstract and realistic understanding of the external/internal causes of death.
-Universality: Death happens to all living creatures, including themselves.
Each phase of their life brings new sets of challenges and leads them closer to conceptualizing death at the level of an adult. Because of this, it’s incredibly important to know what stage your child is in. Here’s how to best help your child comprehend death, grieve appropriately, and continue to thrive after experiencing loss.
Babies are incapable of understanding death and don’t yet have the mental capacity to recognize it’s occurrence. This means that, even if someone close to them has died, they do not know the person has gone forever. All they can comprehend is that the deceased isn’t around them anymore, but not the reason why.
If a person in the infant’s small world hasn’t died, they may still be able to pick up on the emotions of the people affected by the death. Meaning, if the baby’s mother is grieving the death of someone close to her, the baby feels this stressor as well, albeit not knowing the source or understanding the reason.
However, babies definitely grieve. If a primary caregiver (mom, dad, etc) dies, although they don’t know what happened or why this person is gone, the baby feels this loss deeply and can show symptoms of grief. Babies are cognizant enough to notice the absence of an important person in their life and are greatly affected by this loss.
Infants will express their grief or longing for the deceased via biting, crying, sleeplessness, and sickness. Their behavior and wellbeing will change in distress from missing their caregiver. It’s up to the person caring for them to provide comfort in response to this distress by doing a few things:
-Offering lots of physical affection- babies gain comfort from physical touch, hugs, warmth
-Speaking in soft, soothing tones to ease the baby.
-Keeping a regular schedule- babies and children thrive on a set routine, when this is disturbed, their feelings of anxiety can worsen.
Toddlers don’t fully understand what death is- it holds no significance and, for them, there is no connection between life and death. When someone close to them dies, toddlers will speak as if they are simply away and will return alive and well. They still don’t grasp the permanence of death and will expect the deceased to “wake up” or come back.
At such a young age, toddlers still have concrete thinking. Meaning, they live in a very literal world and do not understand metaphors or euphemisms. So when an adult states their mom/dad is in a “better place,” this can lead to feelings of abandonment in which the child is confused as to why their loved one didn’t take them along. It’s best to use clear language; “dead” and “died” give the child a way to differentiate between the deceased and others. To explain further, saying someone has gone to sleep can lead the child to becoming afraid that every time they lay down to sleep they may never wake up. This may seem silly to adults but we must keep in mind, children are new to this world and are still learning and adjusting to everything life is.
An important component of death to explain to a toddler is non-functionality. Explaining to the child that once someone dies, they do not eat, sleep, walk, or talk anymore and never will again. Toddlers most likely won’t grasp this concept immediately and will constantly repeat the same questions, sometimes even appearing to understand only to ask again soon after.
Now, while toddlers may have an underdeveloped understanding of death, they still feel and love their friends and family. Toddlers are still emotionally driven and can sense when the people around them are sad and will become anxious in response, especially because they do not understand why. Their behavior may also change due to this and they can revert back to baby-like behavior such as thumb sucking, baby talk, and regressing in toilet training.
This behavior is a sign of distress in toddlers and is their way of expressing their need to be taken care of and comforted. Parents and caregivers need to do a few things to ease their reaction:
-Practice patience. Although it will be frustrating to potty train your child all over again in the midst of grieving, it’s an expression of grief for them.
-Keep a set routine. Having a schedule offers them stability and also helps you as a caregiver have something steady to focus on while grieving.
Young Children (3-6)
At 4 years old, children start to comprehend the irreversibility of death, it becomes something permanent.
However, they still haven’t grasped the universality- there is no such thing as personal death. Children are egocentric and believe death happens to other people and that certain groups are protected (parents, teachers, siblings, themselves). Even if they have been touched by death in some way (grandparents), they may believe death is isolated to older people.
Kids still have magical thinking (the belief in which your thoughts, wishes, desires have an effect on the external world.) This is typically harmless, mostly coming up when they play pretend and create their little worlds. Unfortunately, magical thinking can lead to your child dealing with misguided guilt; believing they caused the death because they thought something rude or mean. Magical thinking is also a coping mechanism used by children when faced with something they don’t fully understand. It’s easier for a child to believe their thoughts and actions have some semblance of control over death, rather than the unforeseeable and unstoppable occurrence it actually is.
With their age does come some comprehension, so be prepared for the onslaught of questions your child will throw at you. “When will you die?” “When will I die?” “How does death happen?” While these questions may seem morbid or insensitive, you must remember children don’t know anything. They are just now getting a faint grasp for what death even is. Children’s curiosity is insatiable and for good reason; they’re discovering their world bit by bit. It’s best to help them along and teach them as much as we can.
Parents and caregivers would do well to remember to do a few things to help children understand and cope with death:
-Answer their questions clearly and openly. Don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t know something or are unsure.
-Feel free to express your grief; children need to see that being sad and showing emotion is acceptable and healthy.
-Offer a comforting, stable presence in their life. If they need extra cuddles or want your company, give it to them. Remember, children grieve too.
Older Children (6-10)
Older/school age children grow closer to having a more realistic perspective on death: they understand its permanence and that everyone dies. This can cause some anxiety involving their own death which is completely understandable; the uncertainty and lack of control over death is a cause of fear for many people, adults included.
When dealing with a loss, older children demonstrate grief in a few ways:
-Falling behind in classes
-Changes in sleeping/eating habits
Even as they grow older, children are still in constant need of guidance and care. Don’t feel afraid to give them plenty of attention and comfort in the aftermath of loss.
-Have proper conversations about what happened, this will help your child work through their emotions in a healthy manner.
-Keep regular routines, disrupting their schedule can lead to more stress.
-Don’t expect adult behavior, they're kids- allow them to express themselves according to their age. Kids will play, run, listen to music, etc. Don’t expect them to stop their play even when dealing with grief.
Although parents feel the need to protect their kids against anything that is uncomfortable or potentially painful, death is a natural process of life and children do not need to be shielded from it.
Allow your child to get involved with the funeral or memorial service. Funerals further their understanding and allow them to be involved with their family’s affairs.
-Give them a say in the flower arrangements or music choice.
-If your family has chosen cremation, allow your child to help with choosing the urn.
If your child decides they don’t want to participate in the funeral or memorial service, respect their decision and don’t force them to go. Instead, offer them the chance to have their own private ceremony for the deceased.
-Look into tealight/candle holder urns for a personal candle lighting ceremony.
-Have them draw pictures or write goodbye letters.
A child shouldn’t walk into the funeral without a proper discussion beforehand. They need to be informed on the proceedings that will happen at the funeral- what to expect in terms of the deceased, the people, and the emotions they’ll see.
Parents should encourage and answer all questions their child may have; conversation and discussion is important to put events into perspective and help a child understand what’s going on. This will facilitate the healing process.
The Youth & Funerals booklet by the Funeral Service Foundation offers an invaluable resource to families looking to involve their children in the funeral or memorial service of a loved one. Doing so is beneficial in the child’s grieving process; affording them the opportunity to gain closure, cement their understanding of death, and allowing them to be involved in a vital family event.
A parent’s job is much more than that of a caretaker; it also includes the roles of teacher and counselor. Parents are responsible for teaching their child the ways of the world, how to navigate the paths life will take them on, and how to react to the situations that confront them. As a child grows, they will experience death, whether of someone they were very close to or not. This guide is meant to help a parent or caregiver understand the stages of a child’s concept of death. How to help them fully understand death, grieve, and live their life as fully as possible afterwards.
Here at GetUrns, we hope to help with this pain of losing a loved one by being a resource people can turn to for more information on death and death practices. Please take a look at our blog for more positive words or assistance.