At any age, coping with death is tough. Every individual uniquely processes death and grieving differently. When one individual is outwardly expressive over the loss of a loved one, another may internalize their feelings. Children are the same; although their current developmental stage and age may hint toward the need for a little more understanding and guidance. As death is perceived differently in each stage of a child's life, this piece will focus on how to speak to children about death, and what you may expect during the mourning and grieving periods in the preschool (ages 2-4) to early childhood (ages 4-7) years.
Between the preschool and early childhood years, children have a very literal perspective of the world. It’s always best to avoid abstract explanations and withdraw from using euphemisms when it comes to death. While euphemisms concerning death are easy for adults to understand, this is not the case with children. When explaining death to a child, What's Your Grief? (WYG) says that parents should never say “she’s in a better place”, “he kicked the bucket”, or “he’s sleeping forever.” With regard to the latter—he’s sleeping forever—WYG opines that because a child sleeps every night and is used to waking up in the morning, “you run the risk of them either believing the dead person will wake up, or making them terrified to ever fall asleep again (because they may not wake up).” Death is scary enough without adding more anxiety to your child's life. KidsHealth.org suggests that when a loved one dies, “you might explain that the person's body wasn't working anymore and the doctors couldn't fix it.” It’s really up to the parent to break the news to them in concrete, clear language without overstating the situation.
Customarily, some form of a funeral service occurs upon death. It's perfectly natural that you may be hesitant or question whether your child should be present at the funeral. The Dougy Center - The National Center for Grieving Children & Families indicates that in the interest of the children, it’s important that they do not feel left out when death occurs, and to give them the option of attending the funeral service. While children in the preschool may not be able to fully understand the situation and will unflinchingly agree to attend, you may get more resistance in the early childhood years. On the contrary, if your child decides not to attend, which they may later regret, they shouldn't be criticized for doing so. Emotions are at an all-time high at funerals, and quite often, parents will try to shield that emotion from their child. They should certainly be allowed to say goodbye in their own way. Kate Hilpern, in her article titled "Should Young Children go to Funerals?" relates that showcasing emotion is a "good thing because crying can help you feel better as a result of letting all the hard feelings out. By saying it’s OK for adults, it also gives permission for children to show emotion." Emotional expression at an early age, when compared to bottling up your feelings, is always a positive thing.
When it comes to children, their grief responses may vary based on their current developmental level and age. According to HealthyChildren.org, “parents should be aware of normal responses to death” which includes “shock, sadness, anxiety, or anger.” Children in the preschool years (ages 2-4) do not understand that something is forever. If you tell them that you're permanently taking a toy from them for misbehaving, they’ll probably ask you one minute later if they can have it back. Vitas Healthcare notes that because preschoolers are “present-oriented” they have a “heightened sense of anxiety concerning separations and rejections because they don’t yet have the capacity to use fantasy to gain control over what is happening.” Preschoolers and early childhood (ages 4-7) are very similar in their grief responses. They may start fixating and questioning the death process, and death may find it’s way into playtime when they engage with toys. Resultantly, these age groups may “regress as a way to receive more nurturance and attention during this difficult time. Children who have experienced a loss at this age tend to be fearful that other loved ones will leave them as well.” So again, it’s very important that the children are not ignored during the grieving and mourning periods.
Any way you see it, finality is a hard nut to crack. While it’s easier for adults to understand that death is a permanent outcome, children view it as only a temporary action; that the person who passed may return or they are simply hiding, ready to jump out and surprise them. As the father of 3.5-year-old twins, I had to recently break it to them that their grandfather—my father—had passed. My wife and I did not have the proper tools to explain it. Death is a silent (and quick) enemy, and we weren't prepared. I inadvertently told them that “grandpa was sleeping and would never wake up.” Luckily, they didn’t become permanently scarred by this response and dread going to sleep. At the funeral, they were very much present. The Dougy Center finds that funerals are a "meaningful and important experience for children to have the opportunity to say goodbye to the person who died in a way that feels right to them. Saying goodbye is never easy, but it helps bring a sense of finality to the death that is helpful in the healing process." Because they attended, they were able to gain some semblance of his physical passing. Now two months later, they still ask if he's going to wake up. And every time, we have to let them down. Hopefully, the resources utilized herein will assist other parents when faced with having to talk to their children about death, and the arduous task of navigating through the mourning and grieving periods with them.