How do you help a child cope with death when they don’t know what death is?

by Lara on January 1, 2011

I’ve been thinking about death a lot lately—or, more accurately, how young children reason about and process death. A few recent experiences with our preschooler, along with an anecdote I heard about a friend’s five-year-old, remind me just how difficult it is for children to wrap their minds around what death means—and how hard it is to help them deal with an event that they have very little understanding of.

Our daughter, who’s three, frequently asks about the death of a friend’s elderly father several weeks ago. They’re not really questions, I guess, more like attempts to talk herself through what death means. “Bob’s daddy died,” she’ll say. Then, a few beats later, “But not anymore.” A friend reports that her little boy is saying similar things about his grandmother, who recently passed away. We try to help Lily talk her way to an understanding of what it means. We talk about being sick, we talk about bodies that don’t work anymore–we keep it simple, biological, concrete. And the moment we think we’ve said something that clicked, that she understands, Lily will say something off-the-wall, like “And I’m dead, too”–and we realize that it’s pointless. To a young child, “dead” is temporary, something the doctors or magic can fix. They can grasp the concept of the body “breaking” somehow, of a heart or lungs not working. But to grasp the idea that someone can remain broken forever—that takes a long time, much longer than most people realize, and all the talking in the world is unlikely to speed up that process.

When I teach undergrads about how people understand and cope with death and dying across the lifespan, they are usually shocked to learn that children don’t consistently view death as permanent until they’re close to 10 years old. Ten! Around the same time, they also begin to understand that death is universal—that everybody dies, not just The Bad Guys. It seems awfully late in life for children to wrap their minds around the concept, but if you think about how little experience the average American child has with death–not to mention the myriad ways we muddy up the issue for them via euphemisms and cliché’s and references to heaven—it makes a little more sense. (David Sedaris captures the essence of how many children develop false ideas about death in his story The Youth in Asia.)

In talking to my daughter, I found this to be a helpful website. It has tips for helping children cope with death at different developmental stages, and includes a list of common psychological and behavioral responses to learning of a loved one’s death.



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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Kenn4786 March 9, 2011 at 9:34 pm

I find it fascinating that it takes children until the age of 10 to understand death when they grasp so much more before hand. I get that they understand that things break like our body and that you can explain these things and the process of death in a very simple way. So I am surprised that younger children cannot put everything together before the age of 10. I think that 3 is too young to fully grasp the concept of death but by age 7 or 8 according to Piaget they should be able to understand. So what is keeping children from fully grasping the concept of death until the age of 10?

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Aron Broadnax April 19, 2011 at 9:37 pm

It is not surprising that children have a hard time grasping the concept of death. Most aspects of a child’s life, especially in early childhood, are constants, things repeated everyday. Same parents, same siblings, same house, same school, same schedule, etc. So when someone important to them, who has been a constant in their lives, leaves permanently, it is very difficult to understand. It is also not surprising that children do not understand that everyone dies until the age of 10, because popular movies typically only show the death of the villians.

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J. Stowers April 26, 2011 at 11:41 am

I’d have to say that for some young people, this illusion of death being temporary could have it’s benefits. If you think about the depression, the emotional taxing, and all the negativity that normally surrounds death, one might want to shield a child from this. Growing up though I was aware of my great-grandmother, my grandfather, and then my grandmothers’s deaths. Chronologically they were spaced out pretty evenly through my childhood and adolescence. Looking back I can tell that they had a gradual affect on me, as I got older the death affected me much more strongly. Maybe this is due to my gradual realization of the concreteness of death, or maybe because of the development of the sense of what the word “forever” actually meant.

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Alexandrea Logan April 26, 2011 at 5:02 pm

I’ve always believed that children are so optimistic and that adults should learn from them. They can always see the beauty and wonder in things. Even if that thing is death. They see it as something that can not last forever, something that can be fixed or that the person may even come back in time. I’m not saying that adults should look at death has a temporary thing because obviously that person is not going to come back to life but if adults could have half of the optimism children obtain then the world would not hold so much hurt. It honestly saddens me that this trait that children obtain eventually becomes less and less over the years.

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Megan Schmidt April 28, 2011 at 7:43 pm

I too was quite concerned with Youth in Asia for several years. Growing up Catholic, it was something that I overheard being dicussed frequently but never paid enough attention to to actually understand what it was. This all changed when my cat with cancer was euthanized when I was 10. The exact age you point to as the time frame when one really grasps the concept of death. I grasped it very well and was devastated for months. I agree with Jared, that there are benefits to a child’s inability to understand death.

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yu3588 May 4, 2011 at 10:43 pm

It is interesting on how children think differently from adults on certain issues. As it was mentioned in the comment, death is looked upon as permanent for adults but the concept of death is harder for children to grasp. Children seem to look at different factors or life experiences in a broader outlook whereas the adults think deeper into the experiences they face. It seems like if the child is facing an issue that upsets them, he/she could brush it off and carries on his/her life. However for adults, this concept of brushing it off seems to be harder. Why is this? Is it because the adults have more knowledge and built their emotions to match certain issues? Or is it because the child’s emotions/mind is naive? It would be nice to see adults to have an open mind like a child because they would be able to move along in life with no worries. It would be nice but hard to follow through.

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Ethan Johnson May 6, 2011 at 1:41 pm

The idea that children do not fully realize what death is until the age of ten is very intriguing. Although I do not have much experience around young children, I could imagine how difficult it would be to explain such a vague topic. As a parent one does not want to blatantly tell children the reality of death. But on the other hand he or she does not want the child sit there wondering.
–Ethan Johnson

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pend4784 May 6, 2011 at 3:11 pm

Trying to think back I feel like I was rather old when I finally understood what it meant for someone to be dead. I had never had anyone close to me die so it wasn’t something that I was forced to deal with or something my parents were forced to explain to me. I think when we try to teach children about Heaven it confuses the death issue because in Heaven you can live forever, so I can understand why it would take so long for a child to understand the true meaning of death.

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