Grasping the concept of death will vary for children of different ages and stages of development.
Even though all children are unique and will respond to and understand death in their own unique way, children’s reactions to grief can depend on many factors including their developmental stage.
It is also important to remember that children’s understanding of death will be developed over time, particularly as they navigate new experiences and are exposed to new concepts.
Children under 5 years
Children under the age of 5 do not understand the finality and permanency of death. They often think that death is reversible and that a loved one can come back.
Whilst very young children have no understanding of the concept of death, they can still sense and react to changes in their environment and routine. They will experience feelings of loss and insecurity if a significant person is absent, which can manifest as increased crying or changes in their sleeping and feeding patterns in babies.
Language to use
Children under 5 years of age have a very literal understanding of concepts so it is important to use clear, honest, and simple language like “died”. When explaining death, it may be helpful to explain that death means a person’s body has stopped working, death happens to everyone at some point, and death can’t be reversed. Euphemisms such as “passed away” and “gone to sleep” may cause misunderstandings and confusion and should be avoided.
Behaviour of young, bereaved children
Toddlers and young children bereaved at this age may display increased irritability, withdrawal, clinginess and anxiety, disrupted sleep, changes in appetite, less interest in play, and they may regress in skills such as language or toilet training. They can be supported by keeping to normal routines and providing them with constant reassurance and love.
Children aged 6 to 8 years
Between the ages of 6 and 8, children gradually begin to develop an understanding that death is permanent and irreversible.
Children’s imagination and ‘magical thinking’ at this age can mean that some children believe their thoughts or actions caused the death. This can lead to feelings of guilt. For example, “I didn’t brush my teeth and therefore mummy has died.”
Give clear information
It is important to give them clear information about the death and to help them understand that it’s not their fault, to avoid them filling in their knowledge gaps with incorrect assumptions.
Thoughts and feelings
As they become increasingly aware that death is an inevitable part of life that happens to all living things, they may become more anxious about their own, and others, health and safety. For example, they may demonstrate more separation anxiety than they exhibited prior to the bereavement. Children at this age will begin to think and feel strong emotions but they may not have the vocabulary to express themselves. It might be helpful to use books and other media to explain death and to help them understand the feelings they are experiencing.
Children aged 9 to 12 years
Children aged 9 to 12 usually understand the finality of death and that the person who died is not coming back.
Awareness of the impact of the death
Children at this age may also show increased interest in the biological and medical processes involved in death and dying. They are also more aware of the impact the death has on them, for example that their lost loved one won’t be there for important birthdays or milestones like moving to secondary school.
By this age, children will have developed a vocabulary to understand their thoughts and feelings, however they might not want to share them.
Reassure your child that they are safe and try to keep to a normal routine and maintain normal boundaries around expected behaviour. You can also help them by giving them permission to talk about how they feel about the person who has died and any worries or concerns they might have.
Teenagers and young adults
Teenagers usually have an adult understanding of death and are much more aware of its finality and the impact of a loved one dying both now and in the long term.
The meaning of life
At this age, young people are starting to question the meaning of life and other philosophical concepts. For example, they might begin asking questions about what happens after death. Adolescence is a time of profound change, and it can also be difficult for teenagers to ask for support whilst trying to transition to adulthood. It is important to give them clear and honest information and ensure a trusted adult is their source of truth and clarity.
Although they may have the developmental ability to understand the concept of death, this does not lessen the impact of grief and loss. The teenage grieving process is unique for every young person.
Some teenagers react by withdrawing from others, whilst some might take on adult responsibilities and try to become the caregiver, and others might cope with the awareness of their own mortality through risk-taking behaviour. Grief might also manifest as difficulties concentrating and studying at school, or an increased need for control.
Teenagers do not like to feel different from their peers and grieving as a young person can be extremely isolating. The support of peers with similar experiences can be enormously powerful and the bereavement programs offered by Feel the Magic help foster these peer relationships.
It is also important to consider that children who have been bereaved at an earlier age may need to re-process their grief as they think about their future and fully understand the impact of life without the person who died, or experience milestones that trigger renewed grief.
Our Grief Resource Guide contains more information on supporting bereaved adolescents as they transition into adulthood.
What to Say to a Child When a Parent Dies
Supporting Children and Teens Through Grief, Anniversaries and Significant Events