When a family experiences a loss, whether it be a relative, a friend or a pet, it can be challenging to navigate through the feelings of those involved. Particularly, for children, it can be a new and confusing experience. Here is some advice for teaching children about death.

First and foremost, respect their emotions. They may be sad, angry, distant, distraught, quiet, loud. They may act out, ignore the loss and ask many questions. They may process it quickly, but more likely they will need time.

Communicate to them in a way that is developmentally appropriate but direct. Don’t lie about what happened. Use the words “died” and “death” not “passed away” or “asleep”. Explain things slowly and over time if a child seems to get too anxious or overwhelmed.

Realize that younger kids do not understand the concept of death. At around age 4, a child can grasp the finality of death. After 5, they can understand that if one is dead, they do not feel, think, move or play as we do. This leads into another stage where the child relates to their own mortality…the realization that they too will die someday. The understanding that all living things will die.

Cry if it comes. Let your child cry if it comes. It’s normal and a vital part of the grieving process. Never say, “be tough”, “wipe those tears away”, “get over it”. Respect your child. Respect their grief. Respect the loss is their own just as yours is your own. Keep the open communication going in the months to come. A child needs to have the freedom to go back to the emotions they initially had or move forward to another stage of grief.

Laugh if it comes. Let your child laugh if it comes. The joy of our children is contagious. It pulls us through the grief and allows them to create a positive space for their grief.

If you are concerned about your child’s grief, adjustment or behavior surrounding a loss, recent or not, please call us. We can help. We are here to support your child’s emotional health as well as their physical health.

Dr. Stombaugh