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Talking to Children

helping each other cope

When you are faced with the death of someone you love, it is natural to struggle when coping with your emotions. You may feel distressed, shaken, and preoccupied. You might also seek isolation to cope with your own grief. But if you have children, remember that — perhaps more than ever — they need your support at this time. Their presence is a good reminder of the important people in your life that make it beautiful.

Grief in Children

No one wants to talk about death and yet it is still important to do. Just like grown ups, a child or youth's reaction to loss depends on the closeness of the relationship with the person who died. Children and youth have another layer of complexity to their grief which is dependent upon where they are in their journey to adulthood. The age and maturity level of a child/youth will have an impact on their reaction to the death of a loved one. As a child ages and matures, there will be times when they will revisit the memory of losing a loved one. It is important that you provide support during this difficult time.

For you to have a clearer picture of how children feel and react to the loss of someone who’s been a significant part of their life, we’ve provided an overview based on their age.

Infants and Toddlers

Infants may not realize a death has occurred. Changes in the baby's feeding and nap schedule as well as caregivers may lead to increased irritability and the need for attention. Although they may not have the ability to cognitively grasp what is going on, they can understand loss through their experience of the world. A child of this age will benefit from extra snuggling and holding, extra touch provides much needed security and love in a tumultuous time.


Children at this age sometimes believe death is a temporary condition, like many cartoon characters. Young children may have trouble differentiating reality from fantasy. Unknowing adults often use euphemisms to explain death, this approach is confusing to children. Terms like“gone away,” “sleeping,” or “lost” do not help young children understand the permanence of death. Phrases like these might also heighten fears or negative thoughts. For example, if a young child is told that a deceased loved one has “gone away,” it might make him/her feel abandoned or rejected. If you tell them that the person in the casket is only “sleeping,” preschoolers might have fears about not waking up again when they sleep at night. It is best to be honest and use simple, direct words little ones can understand when talking about the death of a loved one.

Elementary school age

At this stage of development, death is often viewed as a character, like the grim reaper, who has the ability to select who lives and who dies. By this point kids have leared some rules and hot to follow them. Death does not seem to follow the same set of rules. Elementary age kids and beyond may utter phrases like, "it is not fair!" Art is a good way to help kids express the unspeakable.

Middle School Age

By this stage, children are more likely to understand abstract concepts such as death and know that everyone dies at some point. They also have more knowledge about how the body works. Be prepared for specific questions they might have, your answers should be factual and specific. There may be a fascination with the details and concrete nature of the death. In addition to feelings about the death, the youth may be more vulnerable and insecure due to changes in their bodies and other aspects of life. Please give them sufficient opportunities to express their feelings of pain and grief.

High School Age

Most adolescents have very intense emotions. Teenagers may try to keep feelings of grief to themselves to demonstrate their independence and how grown up and in control they are. This is most often not the case. Teens are more likely to engage in high risk behavior because they are unable to properly express their feelings, especially after the death of a loved one. Youth may feel more comfortable talking to their friends. This may help them open up to their feelings and may make way for healing. This does NOT mean that you no longer to them. Create opportunities where you can talk together about the loss. Listen, empathize and assure them that you are there to help them cope.

While you might feel it will be helpful to hide your grief to protect your child, a lot of people have found that being honest about their sorrow is better. The honesty helps children see that grieving is natural, typical, and can be healing. Being able to talk about the deceased person, especially the positive qualities of the person and their life, may make way for faster healing.

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