Consider your child's age and emotional development so that you can
explain loss and death in a way that he or she will understand.
Children younger than 2 years of age cannot express in words what is going on in their lives. You need
to reassure the child by holding and cuddling him or her. Stroking the child
while softly talking, singing, or humming can be very soothing. Smile often, and
approach the child at his or her eye level.
Children between 2 and 3 years of age are just learning to use
words to express themselves. Talk with your child using some of the same words
he or she uses. Speak clearly, but be brief when you explain a loss to your
child. Give your child a choice whenever possible. For example, you can say,
"Mommy and Daddy need to go to the hospital to see Grandpa. You are going to
Aunt Jane's. Do you want to put some toys in this bag to take with
Children between 3 and 6 years of age
often believe that their thoughts and wishes cause things to happen. You can
reassure your child that he or she did not cause the "bad" thing to happen. You
can say, "Joey fell from the tree and hit his head. I know you were there and
you might think you made it happen because you were angry with Joey. It's okay
to be angry with someone. Your anger didn't cause Joey to
Children between 6 and 10 years of age don't always fully understand events that occur in their lives.
They may understand only part of what is going on around them. They may
invent conclusions or draw the wrong conclusions about things they don't
understand, resulting in misconceptions about what is happening. They may
develop fears, such as fear of death.
Children between 10 and 12 years of age are able to understand loss the way
adults do. They see death as permanent and irreversible. They often want to be
included in all activities as though they were adults. Include your child in
the activities related to the loss, such as choosing a house when you are
Helping your child
Here are some general guidelines for helping children when they are
Use simple, clear words.
Use words the child can understand. Use correct medical terms when talking
about disease and reasons for death. Do not say things in a way that may
confuse the child.
If you tell a child that "Uncle Steve's body
is in the ground," the child may wonder when Uncle Steve will come out of the
If you tell a child that "Sally is going to sleep for a
long, long time," the child may wonder when Sally will wake up.
Be honest. If a family
member has a serious illness, for example, explain the situation in words that
the child can understand. You can say, "Uncle Thomas has a bad illness that is
causing his lungs to fill with germs. The germs are too strong for his body to
get rid of them. We don't think he is going to live much
Talk about the meaning of the loss.
Loss is a natural part of life. You may want to use an example to help the
child understand the meaning of the loss. For example, say, "Remember when you
lost your stuffed bunny? You were very upset because you didn't think you would
ever see him again. Daddy feels that way now because he lost his
Prepare children for expected losses.
If you are planning to move, include the child in plans and preparations. If
someone in the family is ill and close to death, you can say, "Grandma is sick,
and we want to spend some time with her today." When death gets closer, you can
say, "Grandma is very sick, and we don't think she's going to live much
longer. We are going to say good-bye to her."
Involve children. If a loved one is dying in a hospital, ask
your child whether he or she wants to visit the hospital. Ask your child
whether he or she wishes to attend the funeral or memorial service. Children
generally have a good sense of what they can handle. If your child wishes to
attend the service, assure him or her that you (or another person) will be
there to answer questions or address concerns. Some children don't want to
visit a dying loved one or attend a memorial service. This is okay too. Don't
force your child to do something against his or her wishes.
How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.