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How to Help Children Understand Death
The Dead Butterfly
My son was three years old, and looked up at me with soulful eyes.
“Fix it, Mama. I think it is sick.”
He held a dead butterfly in his hands, and tried to launch it into the sky. The dead insect fluttered to the ground, and my son scooped it up again, the worry was evident on his face, and I struggled for words to explain the concept of “death” to such a young child. Moments like these aren’t planned for, and the dead butterfly caught me off-guard.
“Honey, it can’t fly anymore. It died.”
“Take it to the doctor, Mommy. They can fix it!”
My heart was breaking as he grasped to understand what “it died” meant, and I frantically tried to come up with the right words to explain death. How does one explain death to such a young child?
Hatching New Butterflies
Understanding Developmental Maturity
Very young children do not grasp the permanence of death. Generally, the first encounter with death is through an encounter with a dead animal, the death of a pet, or the death of a grandparent. Very young toddlers may not comprehend that an animal is dead at all when they encounter it, and merely think the animal is “broken” or “asleep.” In general, the best approach is a direct one, explaining what the dead person or animal can no longer do. In the case of our butterfly, for example, I simply stated,
“I’m sorry, honey. The butterfly is dead. It can’t fly anymore. It can’t sit on flowers or move its wings. When things die, their bodies don’t work anymore.”
Even with a simple explanation, my three year old was simply too young to understand that the situation was permanent.
“I will put it in the woods,” he said, “and it will be better tomorrow.”
We placed the butterfly in the woods, and he ran off to play. At the age of three, the encounter with death was a brief one, and he had forgotten about the butterfly by the afternoon. This was the first, brief encounter with death in his young life, and he was beginning to process the event in small pieces. Learning about death is a process, and children understand more as they begin to age. Most children are in elementary school before they begin to grasp the permanence of death, and a five year old may ask whether Uncle Bobby is coming to their birthday this year, for example, even if Uncle Bobby died two years ago.
Ages and Stages: Understanding Death
Understanding of Death
If a close family member or caretaker dies, the child will notice the person’s absence. Infants will react to the environment of sadness and grief, and may become fussier. Some behavioral changes may include appetite changes and changes in bowel habits.
Toddlers have object permanence, may continually seek out a close family member or parent who has died. Grieving toddlers may continue to search for the missing family member for a long time before they realize the person is not coming back.
Preschoolers still only have a limited understanding of death, and often do not realize the permanence of it. Children in this age group sometimes believe they did something to cause the person to die. Children may have a sense of guilt surrounding the death of a loved one, and may need to be reassured they were not responsible in any way for the death of their beloved family member.
Young school aged children who experience the death of a very close family member or caretaker will be set apart from their peers, who have often not experienced such an event in life. Early elementary school aged children still do not have a firm grasp on the concept of death, and may experience bursts of grief. Children of this age group will need to know how to explain what happened to those who ask – a brief statement like, “My grandma just died” is a good answer to those who ask why the child is sad.
Pre-teens generally have a good concept of death and understand it is irrevocable. Kids in this age group may regress or show behavior from the younger age group as they struggle with the grieving process. Kids in this age range desire independence, but death makes them feel helpless. Kids in this age range may also need reminders that it is OK to feel happy or excited about certain life events, even though something very sad and tragic has occurred.
Avoid Euphamisms About Death
With any explanation, avoid confusing language about death: phrases like “he’s sleeping” or “resting in piece” are very confusing to young children. Kids are extremely literal, and do not understand allusions and verbal sidestepping around the topic of death. If an adult says that “Great Uncle Billy bought the farm,” a child will literally think Uncle Billy has bought a farm. Use direct language to discuss death: use the words dying, dead, and death in all explanations to young kids.
Memories of a Beloved Pet
Dealing with the Death of a Pet
A random encounter with a dead butterfly is much less significant to a child than the death of a family pet. My son’s understanding of death increased when our beloved pet cat died. Unfortunately, our cat disappeared in the night and never returned (we are fairly certain he was the victim of a coyote attack). This made the explanation and acceptance of our pet’s death very hard for our son, because the cat simply disappeared. At the age of five, his understanding of death was greater than at the age of three. He was rather nonplussed about the situation, and seemed rather “cold” – “Pete got out and never came back. I think he’s dead.”
There were no tears and no apparent sadness. While this may seem shocking, it is not unusual. Five year old children may react in a variety of ways to death – some children will become very clingy or regress. Others may seem to show no outward reaction at all. Some children will have no initial reaction, but will process the concept in small bits and have a delayed reaction later. Others will seem to play morbid games over and over again: playing “dead” and then declaring, “Now I’m alive again!”
Even though we had no pet to bury, we still talked about Pete the Cat and my older son drew him a picture. He didn’t have the language to express his feelings about death at this age, but drawing pictures in the cat’s honor was a way to express his feelings without words.
A few months after our cat Pete died, my son was snuggling down at bedtime. Out of the blue, he whispered, “I wish Pete still was still here.” He was still grieving, though in small increments as he processed the death.
It is important to have a memorial service of some kind for the bereaved pet. A funeral, burial, or even simple actions like drawing pictures and remembering the pet are helpful to children who miss their beloved animals.
First Experience with Death: A Poll
What was your first experience with death?
Dealing with the Death of a Family Member
By far, the most difficult encounter with death occurs when a family member dies. For most young children, human death is first encountered when a grandparent dies. For our young son, his great grandmother died when he was five years old. We knew she was ill, and often told him that his beloved great grandmother was very ill. When she died, we told him in a simple way.
“Great Grandma died last night. We are all very sad, because we loved her very much.”
We lived too far away to attend the Memorial Service, so we drew Great Grandpa some pictures and we told stories about Great Grandma at home. Belief systems are often a great comfort to families in times of grief, and we shared our belief that Great Grandma was in heaven.
Discussing heaven with children can be fraught with difficulties, however, because many kids believe heaven is a literal place on earth. They may wonder why they can’t travel to see Grandma in heaven. Children may be very confused when adults claim, “Grandma is very happy in heaven” when they see everyone in deep grief. If Grandma is so happy, why is everyone else so sad?
My own son asked me, “Mommy, why are you crying?”
I tried to keep the response very matter-of-fact, and honest: “Mommy is very sad because she misses Grandma.”
Young children will likely bring the topic of death up repeatedly, and may ask the same questions over and over again. This is their way of trying to process the enormity of the concept of death, and parents should patiently answer the same question each time it is asked. Children may also make shocking comments to others – they have not yet learned discretion, and make very bold comments to others. I was highly embarrassed when my young son said to an elderly lady, “You have gray hair. Are you going to die soon?”
In his young mind, gray hair meant that a person was old, and old age meant imminent death. He did not mean to shock or offend with his question – he was simply trying to understand how and why people die. Of course, when we got home we had a discussion about not pointing out people’s differences (such as gray hair) and the fact that many people have gray hair – gray hair does not mean someone will die soon.
Children who are 6-8 years old will understand the permanence of death, though they may still mix elements of fantasy into the reality of the situation. Children of this age group will generally show significant grief following the death of a loved one, as they are now capable of understanding what death means, and that the person will remain dead forever.
Once kids reach the ages of 9-12, they often begin to seek out information as a way to cope with their grief. Support groups of children who have been through a similar situation may be helpful.
The Invisible String is an excellent book, explaining how the power of love stretches across long distances. Even death cannot breath the string of love - a comforting book that shows how the power of love remains when all else is gone.
Books About Death for Children
A highly recommended book to read to young children in the grieving process. Beautifully rendered pictures show glimpses of what heaven might be like. Highly recommended.
Remembering Good Times
Five Questions Children Ask About Death
- What does dead mean? Simple answers are always the best, and a straightforward, “the person’s body doesn’t work anymore” is the best type of answer.
- Will you die, Mommy? Young children may ask this question after a pet or family member has died. A child asking this question is really asking, “Who will take care of me if you are gone?” Reassure the child that they will always be loved and cared for, and that you plan on being there to watch them grow up. In the case of a parent’s death, Hospice and other groups have wonderful support and counseling organizations to help young children cope with fears and grief.
- Remember when Grandma was a little girl? I used to play with her, remember? The child might fantasize about events that didn’t really happen (such as playing with a grandparent as a child) in an effort to remember the person and to bring comfort. Even though the story may not be factual, don’t correct the child. Saying something like, “you really loved her, didn’t you?” is the best course of action.
- Why are you crying? Children are often unused to witnessing the grief of adults. The displays of emotion can be scary to a young child. As with every other situation, a simple, honest answer is best: “Mommy is crying because she is sad and misses Grandma” is a sufficient answer. Children learn that being sad and expressing emotion is a part of life, and that everyone feels sad sometimes.
- Can we see Uncle Billy tomorrow? Even though Uncle Billy died months ago, a young child may continually ask if they can see him, or when he is coming back. Continue to answer the child with, “Uncle Billy died, and we can’t see him anymore. He can’t visit us, and we can’t go and see him. We can remember him, though – what is your favorite memory of Uncle Billy?”
When to Seek Help
Children who lose a parent, sibling, or close friend may need professional guidance to understand their emotions. Hospital social workers, support groups for various diseases, and child psychologists with experience in childhood grief counseling can help a child work through the maze of complicated emotions following the death of a very close family member or friend. The following signs of deep emotional distress signal the need for help:
- Behavioral problems at school
- A refusal to eat/severe appetite changes
- Lack of interest in social activities
- Slipping grades in school