Grief: Helping Children Understand
Consider your child's age and emotional development so that you can explain loss and death in a way that he or she will understand.
- Children younger than 2 years of age cannot express in words what is going on in their lives. You can reassure the child by holding and cuddling him or her. Stroking the child while softly talking, singing, or humming can be very soothing. Smile often, and approach the child at his or her eye level.
- Children between 2 and 3 years of age are just learning to use words to express themselves. Talk with your child using some of the same words he or she uses. Speak clearly, but be brief when you explain a loss to your child. Give your child a choice whenever possible. For example, you can say, "Mommy and Daddy need to go to the hospital to see Grandpa. You are going to Aunt Jane's. Do you want to put some toys in this bag to take with you?"
- Children between 3 and 6 years of age often believe that their thoughts and wishes cause things to happen. You can reassure your child that he or she did not cause the "bad" thing to happen. You can say, "Joey fell from the tree and hit his head. I know you were there and you might think you made it happen because you were angry with Joey. It's okay to be angry with someone. Your anger didn't cause Joey to fall."
- Children between 6 and 10 years of age don't always fully understand events that occur in their lives. They may understand only part of what is going on around them. They may invent conclusions or draw the wrong conclusions about things they don't understand, resulting in misconceptions about what is happening. They may develop fears, such as fear of death.
- Children between 10 and 12 years of age are able to understand loss the way adults do. They see death as permanent and irreversible. They often want to be included in all activities as though they were adults. Include your child in the activities related to the loss, such as choosing a house when you are moving.
Helping your child
Here are some general guidelines for helping children when they are grieving:
Use simple, clear words. Use words the child can understand. Use correct medical terms when talking about disease and reasons for death. Do not say things in a way that may confuse the child.
- If you tell a child that "Uncle Steve's body is in the ground," the child may wonder when Uncle Steve will come out of the ground.
- If you tell a child that "Sally is going to sleep for a long, long time," the child may wonder when Sally will wake up.
- Be honest. If a family member has a serious illness, for example, explain the situation in words that the child can understand. You can say, "Uncle Thomas has a bad illness that is causing his lungs to fill with germs. The germs are too strong for his body to get rid of them. We don't think he is going to live much longer."
- Talk about the meaning of the loss. Loss is a natural part of life. You may want to use an example to help the child understand the meaning of the loss. For example, say, "Remember when you lost your pet rabbit? You were very upset because you wouldn't see him again. Daddy feels that way now because he lost his friend."
- Prepare children for expected losses. If you are planning to move, include the child in plans and preparations. If someone in the family is ill and close to death, you can say, "Grandma is sick, and we want to spend some time with her today." When death gets closer, you can say, "Grandma is very sick, and we don't think she's going to live much longer. We are going to say good-bye to her."
- Involve children. If a loved one is dying in a hospital, ask your child whether he or she wants to visit the hospital. Ask your child whether he or she wishes to attend the funeral or memorial service. Children generally have a good sense of what they can handle. If your child wishes to attend the service, assure him or her that you (or another person) will be there to answer questions or address concerns. Some children don't want to visit a dying loved one or attend a memorial service. This is okay too. Don't force your child to do something against his or her wishes.
Current as of: March 17, 2021
Author: Healthwise Staff
Anne C. Poinier MD - Internal Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Jean S. Kutner MD, MSPH - Geriatric Medicine, Hospice and Palliative Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine