Ways to Help Children Cope with Death

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What we know about children:

  • The family is the center of your child’s world
  • They are quite able to pick up on non-verbal communication
  • Depending on a child’s age and experience, their understanding of death is unique (ex. death is temporary, death is contagious, after death a person still feels pain, hunger, etc.)

What you can do to help your child:

  • Be honest and open
    • It’s OK to talk about death in front of your child
    • It’s OK, even encouraged, to cry in front of and share your feelings with your child
  • Ensure the child is told in a safe environment in the presence of someone they trust.
    • It’s best if this information comes from such trusted adult.
    • The child may not remember exactly what words were used, but they will likely always remember in whose lap they were sitting.
  • Speak simply and clearly
    • Use the words “death,” “died,” etc.
    • Avoid phrases such as “passed away,” “sleeping with angels,” etc.
  • Be careful about using the word “sick” as a reason for death
    • Your child might think they too will die the next time they are sick
  • Keep your child involved as much as possible
    • Allow your child to visit their hospitalized family member before/after death
    • Have him or her draw pictures or write a letter to the dying family member
    • Involve them in the funeral arrangements as much as possible, if interested
  • Provide time and materials for expressive play
  • Make time to spend one-on-one with each child
  • Continue to keep their routine as normal as possible, including discipline, rewards, mealtimes, etc. as they need reassurance that the family and their relationship to it will continue intact.
  • Most importantly, allow opportunities for your child to ask questions. You know your child best and are the best support that they can have.

Things your child may think, say or do:

  • Experience feelings of confusion or guilt
    • Did I cause this to happen?
  • May display anger more openly than other emotions
  • May ask the same question repeatedly
    • Try to give the same response each time
  • May ask: Will I die? Will you die?
    • Consider a response such as, “Most people live a really long time. I expect that you and I will also live until we are very old.”
  • May have a hard time with newly learned skills such as potty-training, self-care, may also have a difficult time concentrating at school, etc.
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