Helping Children of Different Ages Cope with a Death

Adults help children most when they express their own sorrow and respond to questions in a truthful, yet age-appropriate way.

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Some people believe that children are just too young to understand the meaning of death, that they shouldn't be burdened with thoughts they cannot possibly grasp, and that they should be spared adult grief.

But children growing up today are well aware of the reality of death. They seem to have built-in lie detectors and know something ominous is occurring in their small world. We cannot protect them from the tragedies of life, but we can exercise considerable influence by modeling healthy attitudes.

Crying Girl

There are many variables that affect children's understanding of death, such as who died, where, when, and how, and how the death will affect the child, as well as the child's prior experiences with loss. And of course, there is the developmental age. It is important to remember that children of the same age may differ widely in their comprehension and behavior. It is impossible to fit perceptions into a fixed age category. For all of us, the meaning of death changes as our life changes. The following are but general guidelines that might prove helpful.

Preschool Age Children

Although an infant may not have an understanding of the word death, babies and toddlers do react to loss. Changes in the emotional atmosphere of the home and in the responses of significant others may upset the child and result in variations in crying and eating patterns and in bowel or bladder disturbances.

Small children have a pervasive fear of being abandoned. After a death in the family, children with separation anxiety may be afraid to go to school, camp, or even to sleep over at a friend's home. They frequently demand excessive attention from parents, cling to them, follow them around, climb into their bed at night. They fear that if they become separated either they or their parents will come to harm. Some children are not able to concentrate on their activities, become withdrawn from their friends, and are in general apathetic and depressed.

Even children without separation anxiety may experience an intensification of normal anxieties when a loved one dies. For example, they may exhibit fear of the dark, of going to sleep, of going to a new place, or of a parent going on a business trip. Youngsters often regress to a behavior that had been given up prior to the death, with a return to thumb-sucking or bed-wetting.

A preschool child may not believe that death is final. She may think that death is like sleep: you are asleep, then you wake up. Or that it is like taking a journey: you go away, and then you come back. A child experiences some aspects of what he or she considers "death" when her father or mother goes to work. It is like playing "peek-a-boo" (an expression that comes from the Old English, meaning "alive or dead"). One moment you are here, then you are not.

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Earl A. Grollman

Rabbi Earl A. Grollman is an internationally known lecturer, writer, and grief counselor whose twenty-four books about death and other losses, including Living with Loss, Healing with Hope: A Jewish Perspective.