Helping Children Cope with Death

by Kelley Mathews

sad-toddler-girl-at-table

Death is one of the hardest topics to broach with a young child, especially if you are struggling to deal with your own sorrow. However, it is an inescapable aspect of life and your child will want to understand it and find his own way to grieve.

Children of all ages are confronted with that inevitable moment when life no longer exists: a pet is killed, a grandparent dies, a natural disaster kills many lives, or even a character in a cartoon or movie dies. You may wonder how much children understand or how best to talk about death and dying. How does a child process grief, and how can we adults help them through the phases of grief?

Developmental Stages of Children

In all of these issues, an important factor to consider is the developmental age of the child. Of course, children grow in their emotional and mental capacities to understand and process the idea of death. We can gauge their abilities by looking at their general age range. Younger children think more concretely; older children will be better able to understand the finality of death.

Talking About Death With Preschoolers or Young Children

Many people feel especially challenged when approaching the subject of death with preschoolers and young children. More important than feeling as if you must answer all their questions correctly is their need for you. Listen well, give them space to vent, be gentle and reassuring, and point them to God’s love.

What to Expect from Grieving Children

Grieving children will experience a normal progression of feelings, behavior, and questions. Learn the differences between short-term, expected responses to death and the more alarming long-term reactions that require professional intervention.

The following information, compiled by children’s minister Dr. Melissa Ewing of First Baptist Church (McKinney, Texas), will outline general guidelines in talking to children of different developmental ages. These guidelines are very general, and you as a parent should realize that we all, including children, grieve and understand death in our own unique ways. We encourage you to download this pdf resource for your own use or to share with friends, pastors, and family.

Talking to Kids about Death