Help a child
cope with death

Information in this section is supplied by Ilze Alberts, an Educational Psychologist and includes insights and advice on how to explain, and help children of different ages, cope with death.

And Grief

Children coping with grief

Though grieving is complex, it is not beyond the skills of a sensitive adult to help a child through it. The guidelines are fairly simple.

  • Tell the truth in terms the child can understand. Many adults try to spare their children by fabricating a tale about the person who has died, “Daddy has gone on a long trip, far away” or be delaying the truth. “We’ll wait until things settle down”, or even withholding it, “She’s too young to understand anyway.” Children are rarely fooled by these ploys, and are often anxious because of them. They are better off being told immediately by someone close in terms they understand.

  • Children need to be included. It used to be common practice to send children away during a time of grief. That only heightened their anxiety, added to their feelings of abandonment and deprived them of support just when tensions were highest. Funerals and other grieving rituals are helpful to children, too, and, wherever feasible, they should be allowed to take part.

  • Grieving children need loving support. At a time when their world has been turned upside-down, they need to be held and hugged, rocked and listened to, kissed and tucked in. All the significant adults- teachers, coaches, scout leaders, should know about the situation so they can help too. It’s easy to overlook a grieving child, especially if he/she is being ‘good’ (i.e. not bothering the grown-ups), but the too quiet grieving child is a child at risk. Better to seek him out and draw him out than later deal with the effects of unresolved grief.

  • Expect some delays and regressions. A child may take longer than a year to grieve for someone close, but be alert for grief that is too prolonged or grief that never surfaces, especially if the child seems depressed or is acting out. Professional help makes sense, even if it is ordinary grief that is causing the problems.

As parents, we would like to spare our children unnecessary grief, but we cannot shield them from every loss- nor should we. As we help our children express their feelings, say ‘good-bye’ and continue with their lives, we are helping them develop a more realistic view of the world and a resilience to cope with it. Play Therapy is recommended to help children deal with loss and grief.

Explaining death to children

Explain to children that dead means the body stopped working. When the person or animals is alive, the body is doing its work. The body makes the person or animal breathe, move, eat, see, hear, touch, smell, talk, play, think, feel. Dead means the body stopped working. Their heart stops beating, and breathing stops. The person or animal cannot see, feel, touch, taste, talk, play, think or eat anymore. It looks like the person or animal is asleep, but isn’t sleeping and the person or animal cannot wake up.

The person or animal who died does not need their body anymore. That special part of what we loved so much about the person or animal is called the soul. It is where all the specialness is and when a body stops working, the soul goes to live with the angels (or whatever your believes are).
Children have the right to go to a funeral or memorial service. The child can choose. Prepare the child carefully and tell factually what the process is like and what is going to happen.

Explain that because the body isn’t working anymore and the soul is now with the angels (or whatever you believe) two things can happen to the body. The body is put into a wooden box called a coffin. After the service, the coffin can either be put deep into a deep hole in a graveyard. The hole gets covered by ground and loved ones can go back to the grave and put flowers on afterwards. Something else that can happen to the body which is not working and which is in the coffin, is that it gets burned or cremated. Afterwards the ashes are given to the loved ones and the ashes can be kept in a beautiful container or spread somewhere special.

It is good for adults and children to say good bye and several things can be done:

  • Write a letter to the dead person/animal
  • Draw a picture for the dead person/animal
  • Make a card for the dead person/animal
  • Plant a tree, put a wind chime, bird-bath, etc. in the garden in memory of the person/animal.
  • Children have the right to say good bye to their loved ones and with preparation can see the body. 

Children are very in-tuned and resilient and the more we honestly include them on the workings of life, the more we learn from them.

Children’s Concept of Death at different ages

Death is merely a deep sleep. Children worry about the comfort of the dead person and are concerned that the dead person may be hungry, cold, or lonely. Death is temporary, reversible, and caused magically. Children at this age tend to respond in varied, often contradictory, and unpredictable ways. They may be angry with the dead person for abandoning them or anxious that others may also leave them. A preschooler may be convinced that some thought or action of his or her own caused the death. Adults must be sensitive to changes in behaviour caused by the guilt feelings.

Ages six to eight years:
Death is conceived as a person. If the child’s magic is strong enough, death can be fought and mastered. Death does not take young and healthy people. Only the old and sick are too weak to hold death off. The dead can still hear, eat, see and breathe. This causes many fears about the fate of the corpse. Children at this age may worry about being trapped in coffins. They are fascinated about what happens to corpses after death and may be preoccupied with decomposition and decay.

Ages nine to twelve years:
Children now know that what lives also dies. They have let go of magical thinking and replace it with a higher order of logic. Death is understood as normal and irreversible. Dead people cannot be brought back to life. They are concrete and objective in their reasoning. They still may think that death will not happen to them until they are very old. In fact, with luck, it is possible to escape death altogether.

Children at this developmental stage understand internal illness as a cause of death, as well as physical violence and accidents. Their anxieties are more likely to be related to the physical consequences of death than to separation. Physical causality is understood, so their fears may focus on bodily mutilation, being buried alive, and the physical process of death. Because they understand the irreversibility of death, they may receive a comfort in the belief of life after death but still have difficulty visualizing a decaying body in a coffin and in heaven at the same time. The concept of a soul is usually too abstract for an 11-year-old to understand.

Death is final and irreversible. It happens to everyone, including themselves. Adolescents are as capable of abstract reasoning as adults. They are concerned with the theological beliefs or explanations of life after death. Death is remote and spiritual rather than concrete and physical. It is inevitable, but will not happen immediately. Adolescents live for the moment and deny the possibility that death could interrupt any of their current or life plans. Adolescents may take unwarranted risks when seeking thrills or impressing friends because they do not accept the reality of personal danger. They may focus on the glory of death and may idolize a peer who has died.

Protect your loved ones

Get your own
affairs in order
Before it is too late!

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, all come from earth, and to earth all return.

Ashes to ashes,
dust to dust,
all come from earth,
and to earth all return.