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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Death as the end of life is especially frightening and painful for young people 10 years of age and older. Death is now a biological failure of organs to function. The magical, life-renewing conception of death is replaced by one that is terminal and fearsome. This perspective carries with it feelings of fragility as young people search for their own identity and philosophy of life and death.

When a loved one dies, children of this age may have difficulty in concentrating, exhibit a decline in the quality of their schoolwork, become withdrawn and isolated from family and friends, and seem persistently angry and sad. There could be frequent physical complaints with constant fatigue and frequent drowsiness. For older children, unresolved grief may be reflected in drug or alcohol abuse, impulsive behavior, and increased risk-taking. Instead of controlling their moods, their moods control them.

What You Can Do

The way in which youngsters work through their grief depends a great deal on how family members and friends reach out to them. The more they are encouraged to share their grief, the more likely they will be better able to cope with the loss in their life. Grieving may help to bring direction to their lives as they become more open to others. "After this, I know I can handle anything," one youth said. "I now know that our family will stick together and who my real friends are. I'm able to remember the person who died without always crying by thinking of some of the great times we had together."

Make sense of death at an age-appropriate level in a safe physical and psychological environment. The goal is to understand that death is irreversible and permanent, involving the cessation of all physiological functioning. The ways of helping children cope are as limitless as adults' patience, caring, and love.

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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.