Things die. Plants die. Pets die. And people die. Death happens even in the lives of children. Adults like to think that children are happy. They like to think that children can always be happy. Death doesn’t sound happy. But children need to think about death sometimes. It is part of life.
Some children might need to think about death a lot. Some children might be in areas with lots of death. There might be shootings. Or there might be lots of sick people. Those children will get used to death. They will need to learn about death at an early age. Their parents will need to get used to talking about it.
Other children might not see death very often. Parents might try to hide death from children. But most children learn about it anyway. They learn that plants and animals die. And they learn that people die. They might learn those things at a different age than children that see death every day.
Death can be hard for children if it is hard for parents. Parents can help children understand death. Parents and children can learn together. Children can learn from parents. And parents can learn from children.
Studies show that…
What children know about death is made up of many other ideas.
- The world around the children makes a difference. Death is a social event.
- Where are the children growing up? Is death common there? Do children see death?
- How is death treated? Do children attend funerals? Do parents talk to children about death? Are funerals public events?
- Do most people die at home? Do they die in hospitals? Are funerals in churches or funeral homes or other places?
- The family’s culture matters.
- Some cultures have parades and dance when people die. Some cultures are quiet and keep homes dark when people die. People might think black, white, purple, gray, green, or yellow are good colors for a funeral.
- Some cultures dress up the dead body. Some burn the body. Some chop it into small pieces and leave it for the vultures. Some put the body on a high platform and others bury it deep in the ground. Other cultures bury the body under the kitchen.
- Some cultures believe dead people come back every year and have a party with living people. Other cultures believe a water buffalo carries the bodies of dead people to the afterlife.
- The family’s religion makes a difference.
- Some religions believe people go to heaven or hell after they die. Some of them believe angels will take people to heaven.
- Some groups believe families will live together in heaven after death.
- Some groups believe there is nothing after death. Life just ends.
- Some believe that people start another life after they die.
- Some people believe their soul or life energy goes into the universe after they die.
- Children have different life backgrounds. Those backgrounds affect how they understand death.
- Some children have never talked with their parents about death. They have never gone to a funeral or memorial service. They have no direct experience with death.
- Some children have lost pets or plants. They have talked with their parents about death. Maybe they had a service for the pet. Maybe they buried the pet.
- Some children have lost grandparents or other relatives. They might have gone to the funeral or memorial service. They have learned some things about death. It is a part of their life. They might have learned that death is for older or sick people.
- One study found that young Black men in one city had lost an average of 3 loved ones to gun violence by age 24. Children in that area might have learned that death is about violence. They might have learned that it could happen to young people. They might have seen people die. They could be afraid that they could die.
- The children’s growth and development will change over time.
- Most older children understand more about death than younger children.
- Children with more experience with death understand more than children with no experience.
- Children look at death differently from adults.
- The items above make a difference as children grow.
How Children Think About Death
There are four big ideas about death. These ideas are based on the way adults think about death.
- Death can’t be reversed. There isn’t an “undo” button. It’s not like a video game. People can’t get another life and start over.
- Death is final. Death is the end for that person. When people are dead, they can’t do anything anymore. They don’t think or eat or make things happen.
- Death is caused by different things. Children often learn first that people die because they are old or sick. They learn that the body stops working for some reason. They learn about accidents.
- Everything dies. All things that are alive will die sometime.
- Children understand first that:
- Everything dies.
- Death can’t be reversed.
- Later they learn the other two big ideas.
- Most children understand basic ideas about death by age 4 or 5.
- It can be hard to put biology and religion ideas together.
- Biology says that death is final. But some religions say that people can come back after death.
- Biology says dead people do not think or eat. But some religions say dead people talk to us. Religion might say we should leave out food for the dead.
- Biology says everyone dies. Some religions say that people can live forever.
- Older children might put biology and religious ideas together. Parents separate those ideas.
- Children change the way they think about death as they grow.
- Younger children think mostly about biology. Young children learn that people are either alive or dead.
- Then young teens learn other ideas. They start to learn about religion. Then they start to think that maybe people are not just either alive or dead. They think start thinking about things that people can’t see. Teens change the way they think about death.
- Adults should remember that pets and plants are not the same as people.
- Sometimes parents want to talk about how pets and plants die. Parents think it will be easier than talking about people. Children can learn about the cycle of life.
- Talking about pets and plants might help. But parents need to be careful.
- Children know that pets and plants are not the same as people. They know that plant and animal death is not the same as a person’s death. Parents will need to talk about how people die, too.
Next steps for parents…
Parents might be children’s first teachers about death.
- Parents will often be there to answer children’s questions. Parents will talk about death and dying now and then. They might take children to funerals or memorial services. They might comment on items in the news. They talk about the death of a pet.
- Those are all ways of teaching the children about death and dying.
Parents might learn things from children.
- Children think differently from parents. They combine ideas in a special way.
- Children might have special ways to look at life and death. They might be able to help parents with new ideas. They might help parents feel better at difficult times.
When a Loved One Dies
- Maybe one of the children’s grandparents dies. Or maybe another relative dies. Or a family friend might die.
- Maybe the child knew the person well. First steps in learning about death are easier if a person that the children did not know very well dies. But that is not something that parents can control.
Children Grieve, Too
- A loved one might die. Then children learn more about death quickly.
- Children will learn about culture and religion. They learn about what their family and community do when some dies.
- They might ask questions about death then. And they might get some answers.
- They see how other family members react.
- Children feel loss. They miss the loved one.
- They might be confused.
- Maybe they don’t understand that death is final Then they might ask when the person is coming back. Or they might think the person is still talking to them or watching them.
- Maybe they don’t understand the causes of death. Then they might think that they caused the death in some way.
- Maybe they think death can be reversed. Then they might try to bring the person back. Or they might think someone else should bring the person back.
- Maybe they don’t understand that death happens to everyone. Then they might think the loved one did something bad. They might think that the loved one was chosen to die.
- They might feel sad when a loved one dies. They might feel angry that the person was taken away. They might feel lonely.
- They might feel happy that the family is all together for the funeral. But they might feel guilty that they feel happy when everyone else is sad.
- They might feel lots of feelings at the same time. That can be confusing.
- They might be confused.
- Parents need to care for themselves and their children at the same time.
- That can be hard. Parents might need help.
- Parents should take care of their needs.
- Parents might need someone else to help their children.
Goals for parents…
- Know what you think about death.
- Be ready to answer children’s questions.
- Look at resources on children and death.
- Look at online resources. Choose some resources that fit your needs.
- Think about getting some children’s books for your children.
- Look at books in the public library.
- Consider some of the titles listed here.
- Ask your children what they think or know about death.
- Find out what they already know. Ask what questions they have.
- Use creative ways for the children to share their ideas. Let them draw pictures. Let them use puppets. Create a play.
- Some young children might want to “play funeral.”
- Get ready for a funeral or memorial service.
- Talk to your children about what will happen.
- Have them help choose a sympathy card, if that is something you would do.
- Talk about other ways to help someone whose loved one has died.
- Maybe a pet has died. Have a funeral for the pet. Let your child take the lead. Do as much or as little as the child seems to need.
- Help your children feel loved.
- Don’t tell your children they will never die. Everyone will die sometime.
- Tell children you will do everything to can to keep them safe and healthy.
- Tell your children you will always love them.
- Point out how people keep living in the hearts of the people who love them.
Best children’s books about death from Goodreads:
How children understand death — Scholastic:
Talking to children about death — WebMD:
Dos and Don’ts of Talking with a Child about Death — Psychology Today:
Bonoti, F., Leondari, A, & MastoraDo, A. (2013). Exploring children’s understanding of death: Through drawings and the death concept questionnaire. Death Studies, 37(1), 47-60.
Callanan, M. A. (2014). Diversity in children’s understanding of death. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 79(1), 142-150.
Panagiotaki, G., Hopkins, M., Nobes, G., Ward, E., & Griffiths, D. (2018). Children’s and adults’ understanding of death: Cognitive, parental, and experiential influences. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 166, 96-115.