Skip to content
Hem Talk to children about death

Talk to children about death

Mother talks to children about death

This post is also available in: Svenska

Facts and advice about talking to children about death. How children of different ages understand death and about being afraid of death. By the author, therapist and pastor of the Church of Sweden Katarina Tingström.

Talk to children about death

When my parents grew up in the 30s and 40s in Sweden, it was thought that children did not mourn. So it was common to keep the child out when death entered the family. Nothing was said and children were not allowed to attend the funeral. Instead, the child was left to their imagination about why a relative disappeared and why the adults were crying. And these fantasies were, at many times, worse than the reality. It is therefore not uncommon for me today to meet older people who haven’t processed the separations in their life and who are afraid of death due to experiences as children.

As a parent, I think I have an important role to play with my children. To dare to talk about death. Death is such a big part of life and it is something that affects everyone. Not to scare my children with my own possible anguish of death, but to equip them so that they can bury me and mourn, on the day they need to.

In this post I will write about how children understand what death is, later on there will be two more posts; one about children and grief and the other about children and funerals.

Läs mer om barn i sorg – stötta som vuxen

Läs om barn på begravning

How do children comprehend the concept of death?

The way children perceive death follows their developmental stages. People usually talk about 5 different phases up to about 20 years of age: around 0-4 years, 4-6 years, 6-9 years, 9-12 years and 12-19 years. The phases flow into each other.

Talk to toddlers about death

For a child up to the age of four, life revolves around food and closeness. For the sake of its survival, the child needs someone who provides food but who also provides closeness, a closeness that is both physical and spiritual. It means, for example, hugs and comfort and understanding.

At about 2 years of age, the child begins to understand that death is something that exists and that humans, but also animals, can die. But death is not perceived as irreversible. Children think that one can return from death. It’s like being able to go back and forth from one city to another. This is why children often think that grandfather can come back from heaven when he dies and everyone is just crying. If he comes home again, everyone will be happy again and the problem is solved. The perspective of time is also quite short for a child and the image of a person can fade quickly.

Since the child cannot understand that death is definitive, the threat to life is not that one dies. It is the feeling of abandonment.

The feeling of abandonment is a strong feeling and creates a fear. If a relative dies, the child fears being abandoned, because how will the child be able to survive without their relative? Some children then want to be close and feel a greater need for closeness. They do not dare to sleep alone or be alone.

Books to read together: “Goodbye Mr. Muffin” (in Swedish) by Ulf Nilsson and Anna-Clara Tidholm

Köp Adjö Herr Muffin på Bokus

Talk to 4-6 year olds about death

After about 5 years of age, children begin to get some idea of what death is, but death is still something that is not irreversible. The dead can still come back. When my oldest son was this age, our neighbor died. He was surprised that she did not take her furniture to heaven. Moving to heaven is like moving to another city. And when you move, you take your furniture with you, of course.

It is at this age that they start reading books like “How the body works”. The interest in one’s own body increases; how the heart beats and how the skeleton carries everything and what the muscles do. What is life at this age is to have a whole body. And what threatens life, death, is that the body is damaged. Going to the doctor and sticking your finger in for a blood test can be a real struggle.

Because in the child, the notion may be that if there is a hole in the finger, the damage to the intact body can make the child unable to live. It creates anxiety, because life flows out through the puncture hole. This anxiety can be managed by putting on patches and that is why this phase can be called the patch age. The best thing about patches is that they can sit anywhere, even on the outside of clothes. By patching the child, it helps to manage their fear and anxiety.

Book to read together: “The Book of Death” (in Swedish) by Pernilla Stalfelt.

Dödenboken som e-bok hos Nextory

Köp Dödenboken hos Bokus

Talk to elementary school children about death

At the age of 6-9, one begins to approach an understanding that death is a biological fact, that the dead is not around. The dead can still come back.

The child begins to understand more and more that they are their own individuals. The world is also large and complex and in order to be able to handle it, life now consists of gaining control. At home, it is noticeable through all the control questions that come: “When will dad come home?”, “Shall we go now?”, “Why do they do that?” The function of control issues is precisely to create a feeling of having control in order to be able to deal with the threat that is to lose control, a fear of chaos. The anxiety that the child may feel is a death anxiety that is associated with loss of control.

If the family loses a family member and the adults grieve by, for example, crying, becoming passive and losing interest in what was previously fun, the child may become anxious as they do not understand what is happening. By talking to the child, explaining what is happening and why, the child can regain a sense of control when they understand. One of my fondest memories of a funeral is when I met a little girl at church when we buried her grandfather. She said to me: “Listen priest, you have to be sad first to be happy again.” I understand that there was a wise adult who explained to her why they cry in church and the girl makes this explanation her explanatory model and can handle the adults crying in church.

Book to read together: “We dig up grandma” (in Swedish) by Måns Gahrton (borrow from your library)

Talk to middle school kids about death

Now the child begins to understand death as a biological fact and that we should all die one day. Death is now forever and if you die you cannot come back.

They enter this phase in an existential period of unrest. They may be afraid of unexpected events. Some children deal with it by becoming anxious while other children become completely fearless. There are two different ways to deal with the fear of death and the realization that everyone is mortal.

The child can give more rational and logical explanations for what happened and since life at this age is about autonomy and independence, it may be important for the child to be able to offer resistance. For example they may want to claim that you do not want to go to a funeral, or be angry at the person who dies.

Book to read together: “The Brothers Lionheart” (in Swedish) by Astrid Lindgren

Bröderna Lejonhjärta some ljudbok hos Nextory

Köp Bröderna Lejonhjärta hos Bokus

Talk to teens about death

In this phase, one understands the extent of being dead and what it means for a family to lose a relative. Not only when the relative dies but also how it will affect the future.

At this phase, children understand that death can now apply to themselves. They understand that they want to live and survive. The parents’ influence is exchanged for friends. You would rather turn to your friends with your thoughts on death and grief, than to mom and dad. Your biggest fear is losing yourself and dying. That is why the fear of death is most evident during this period.

Book to read and talk about together: “The stars are shining on the ceiling” (in Swedish) by Johanna Thydell

Buy The stars shine on the ceiling at Bokus

I taket lyser stjärnorna som ljudbok hos Nextory

Book to read for you who have children:

“Support for children in grief” (in Swedish) by Göran Gyllenswärd

Grief in children – a guide for adults” (in Swedish) by Atle Dyregrov

Köp Sorg hos barn – en handledning för vuxna hos Bokus

/ Katarina Tingström, therapist, author and pastor of the Church of Sweden

Read more:

Läs om barn på begravning

Läs mer om barn i sorg – stötta som vuxen

Siblings of sick children

Book tips:

Köp Adjö Herr Muffin på Bokus

Dödenboken som e-bok hos Nextory

Köp Dödenboken hos Bokus

Bröderna Lejonhjärta some ljudbok hos Nextory

Köp Bröderna Lejonhjärta hos Bokus

I taket lyser stjärnorna som ljudbok hos Nextory

Köp Sorg hos barn – en handledning för vuxna hos Bokus

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *