What Does My Child Understand About Death and Grief?

boy in brown hoodie carrying red backpack while walking on dirt road near tall trees We parents have an innate desire to protect our child from the "negative" things of life, but when death and tragedy strike suddenly and openly, we cannot shield our children from the horror and grief that can follow.  We worry how death and loss will impact these young minds because they don't possess the life experience or coping skills of adults...and death is a hard enough concept for mature, healthy adults to wrap their minds around.

Children learn about death, loss and grief with the help of parents and the adults surrounding and being there for them.  The general rules to follow when talking to your child or adolescent about death and tragedy are:

  • Be honest.  Answer the child and give them information at their level of understanding and without sharing every shocking detail (see Children and Grief By Ages and Stages below).  Let them know that at any time they can feel safe to come to you with their grief thoughts and emotions.
  • Provide comfort, support & security.  In dealing with death, loss and grief, children need to know that they are cared for and will be protected to the best of your ability.  They need to be reassured you and others will be there to help.  They need to feel normal again.  So try to keep them involved in as many normal childhood activities as possible.
  • Don't be ashamed to show your emotions.  If you cry or your voice wavers in the discussion with your child,  tell them that all people of all ages feel sad and grieve sometimes.  Let them know by your example that healthy adults and children naturally grieve the loss of life, especially of people they love or are close to.  Let them know that it is natural to be upset when tragedy strikes, and it is natural to feel sadness for others touched by tragedy.
  • Remember you are modeling how a healthy, mature person shows their grief.  Don't believe the myth that "You have to be strong for the children."  They need to know that you are human and that humans grieving in a healthy way is natural. At the same time, try not to overact to the situation.  Grieve, but if you feel overcome at the moment, delay your discussion and find a place to grieve openly and without restraint away from the child.
  • Observe your children for any signs of complicated grief.  If you see extreme changes in your child's behavior (lingering anger, violent play, trouble at school, regressing to behavior of earlier ages), sleeping patterns (inability to sleep through the night, sleeping too much, nightmares), eating habits (loss of appetite, overeating) or unexplained physical ailments (headaches, stomach aches, other pain complaints),  you may want to seek professional help for you and your child. 

    Written by Larry M. Barber, LPC-S, CT author of the grief survival guide “Love Never Dies: Embracing Grief with Hope and Promise”  available online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble or Christianbook.com.

    The grief survival guide is also available in Spanish as “El Amor Nunica Muere: Aceptando el Dolor con Esperanza y Promesa” on Amazon.com.

    Larry is the director of GriefWorks, a free grief support program for children and their families in Dallas TX  http://grief-works.org.

    FOR INFORMATION ON SCHEDULING COUNSELING SERVICES WITH LARRY BARBER  https://taylorcounselinggroup.com/larry-barber .