This post is also available in: Svenska
Facts and advice about talking to children about death. This post is about how children understand and respond to death at different developmental stages . This is written by 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 believed that children did not mourn. So when there was a death in the family, it was common to keep children in the dark. Nothing was said. Children were not allowed to attend the funeral. Instead, they were left to their own imagination to explain why a relative disappeared and why the adults are crying. And these imaginings are, at many times, much more 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 have an important role to play with my children. I talk to them about death because death is such a big part of life. And it 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 death. Then, there will be two more posts: one about children and grief, and the other about children and funerals.
How do children understand death?
The way children perceive death follows their developmental stages. People usually talk about 5 different phases up to about 20 years of age: 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 comfort. For the sake of survival, the child needs someone who provides food and love and comfort that is both physical and spiritual. This means, for example, cuddles and understanding.
At about 2 years of age, the child begins to understand that death is something that exists and that humans and 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 the child often thinks 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 time perspective is also quite short in the child’s mind 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 fear. If a relative dies, the child fears being abandoned. They think, “how will I be able to survive without my relative?” Some children may then feel a greater need for closeness. They don’t dare to sleep alone or to be alone.
This book is recommended for you and your child to read together: The Invisible String by Patrice Karst.
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 with her to heaven. Moving to heaven is like moving to another city. And when you move, you’re meant to take your furniture with you.
At this age, they start reading books like “How the body works”. Children begin to take interest in the human body: how the heart beats, how the skeleton carries everything and what the muscles do. At this age, life is having a whole, intact body. And what threatens life, or what the child fears most, is the body getting damaged. Going to the doctor and doing a blood test can be a real struggle.
In the child’s mind, the notion may be that a hole in the finger or damage to the intact body, can cause death. It creates anxiety, because life flows out through the hole in the finger. This anxiety can be managed by putting on a Band-Aid. That is why this phase can be called, ‘the Band-Aid phase’. The best thing about Band-Aids are that they can sit anywhere, even on the outside of clothes. By putting a Band-Aid on the child, it helps manage their fear and anxiety.
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 and that the dead is not around. The dead, however, 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 questions that come: “When will dad come home?”, “Shall we go now?”, “Why do they do that?” The need to control or ask controlling questions, is precisely to create a feeling of having control in order to be able to deal with losing control, a fear of chaos. The anxiety that the child may feel about a death is an anxiety that is associated with loss of control.
If they lose a family member and the adults grieve by 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 at a funeral, is when I met a little girl whose grandfather we were burying at church. She says to me: “Listen priest, you have to be sad first to be happy again.” At this, I understand that there was a wise adult who explained to her why they cry in church. This explanation becomes her explanatory model which helps her can handle the adults crying in church.
Book to read together: Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs by Tomie dePaola (Author, Illustrator)
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 when you die, you cannot come back.
They enter this phase in an existential period of unrest and they may be afraid of unexpected events. There are two different ways to deal with the fear of death and the realization that everyone is mortal. Some children deal with it by becoming anxious, and other children become completely fearless.
Children can give more rational and logical explanations for what has happened. Since life at this age is all about autonomy and independence, it may be important for the child to be able to offer resistance. To be able 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
Talk to teens about death
In this phase, the child understands the extent of being dead, and what it means for a family to lose a relative. The affect is not only when the relative dies but also how this 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. They would rather turn to their friends about their thoughts on death and grief, than to mom and dad. Their biggest fear is losing themselves and dying. That is why the fear of death is most evident during this period.
Book to read and talk about together: ”You Are Not Alone: Teens Talk About Life After The Loss of a Parent by Lynn B. Hughes (Author)”
/ Katarina Tingström, psychotherapist, author and pastor of the Church of Sweden