Teaching children to cope with a death

Parentree-editors 2008-10-20 13:20:06

The death of a near and dear person, whether family or friends, can impact children and may result in numerous questions from them, irrespective of age. Here are some tips on how Indian parents can help children navigate through such a situation.

Be honest and clear (All ages)

It is best to be honest and clear about death. It is a natural phenomenon and the earlier children learn to deal with it, the better.  Do not cutoff the discussion. Irrespective of age, children observe, absorb and worry. A candid discussion that gives them as many answers as possible (for younger kids) or helps them find the the answers (older kids) will prevent any bottling up of this worry, which may eventually result in anxiety.

If it was a natural death, explain that the body like any other machine gets worn down and stops working. In later discussions (not the first one), it maybe worthwhile to point out the need for healthy living and eating habits, to take care of the body.  Also, discuss how age has an impact on the body.

If there was a hospitalization prior to the death, highlight the fact that doctors did attempt to set right problems, and how some problems can be solved while others are insurmountable.  In later discussions you maybe able to bring in other examples, and discuss why some problems can be set right while others could not be.

If there was an unnatural death like an accident, it is an occasion to discuss many ideas - luck, fairness, crime etc., depending on the cause.

In all cases, use a consistent term to describe the phenomenon. "Death" is one choice for the term. If you wish to weave in religion or spirituality into the discussion, you can substitute another term like "Returned to God". But pick a term that does not have an everyday feel (example -  "long sleep"). Younger children in particular may be more scared by everyday terms. Whatever term you pick, use it consistently and with an air of finality. Younger children (below 10 years) may not fully understand that death is irreversible, but the air of finality that you convey will help allay any fears they have.

Sometimes, you will not have the answers. For example, an often asked question is "Where have they gone? What happens to them?". In some cases, parents choose to give religious and spiritual explanations. In other cases, parents may give more rational explanations. But if you choose not to do either, a plain answer "I do not know myself" maybe better than a long winded unclear answer.

Give crisp answers first (Usually 2 to 10 years)

For the first set of questions, especially for younger kids, it is best to give crisp, direct answers. Do not answer more than what the question was. There will be a time for deeper answers. The younger the children are, the less their ability to process through any layered explanations that are too complex.

Always treat it as a natural phenomenon (All ages)

It is important that children understand that death is a normal part of life. While being consistent and clear, parents should convey the impression that death is a normal event.  This maybe very difficult, if you are grieving yourself.

Demonstrations of grief (Usually 2 to 12 years old)

Strong demonstrations of grief can leave a significant impression on children. Years later, they may recount, what they witnessed. As a parent, if your child witnesses this, explain to them about the sudden sadness a death causes. Teach them that time will heal all sadness. Use the example of a wound or injury that they or their friends had. Draw a parallel to how the injury caused them pain first, causing them to cry and then over time, it was healed.

Do not feel guilty about mourning or demonstrating grief in front of your children. Grief is natural and even you need to express it. But especially, with younger kids, you should proactively explain why you demonstrated grief.

Repetition (Usually 2 to 8 years)

Children of this age may not fully understand the finality of death. So they may keep asking when the person who died will come back. You may have to repeat yourself many times to them, stating that the person is gone. Do not get angry or upset, and do not change your message. Keep reiterating it to them.

Meaning of life and death (Usually 15+ years)

Older children, like teens, may reflect more on the meaning of life and death. Depending on their needs, parents should engage in a more mature conversation with them. Another source that may help are books. You can visit the local bookstore with them and get them some books that explore life and death, thus allowing them to learn on their own. At this age, they are seeking answers but not from their parents. The best role for parents is to be facilitators or navigators in their search for answers.

Irrational fears (All ages)

For a few weeks or months after a death, parents should watch their children's behaviour for any irrational fears. For example, some children may not want to visit a doctor while others may suddenly not want to sleep alone. In these cases, encourage conversation and questions from your children. Do not bring up the death, unless they do. The goal of the conversation is to let your children talk and slowly express their fears and sort it out themselves.

Really young children (up to 8 years) may worry about whether you will leave them and may often ask you if you will.

Religion and spirituality (All ages)

Depending on your beliefs, you can weave in religion and spirituality into all the conversations and explanations. With younger children, be careful not to use any scary imagery (demons, devil  etc.,). With the older children (especially teens), depending on your beliefs, concepts like heaven, hell, rebirth etc., are great discussion points.

If you follow a lot of rituals and ceremonies, do expect to get a lot of questions about them. When trying to find the answers, you may find you are learning more also.


2008-10-24 11:02:28


My father (kids nana) passed away last year. And I told my 7 year old and 5 year old that he was no longer on planet earth. Some say stars, some say heaven, some say he is part of us and we are one, some say he will be born as a baby, some say this...u can believe what u want to believe. yes, they liked the start bit and also he will be a baby. I remember my little one telling someone nana is died and he is born as baby! it was very very cute.

2008-10-23 14:55:41


Good and thoughtful article!

2008-10-22 16:27:56


I have told my 6 year old that when people die they become stars. It was a perfect non religious way and added the drama to the night sky. Last night she asked the process of turning into a star. Errrr... I told her that the 'soul' leaves the body and turns into a twinkling star ( explained with great dramatics to avoid the inevitable question about what becomes of the body!!) Next question was "what is a soul?" it never ends, does it?

2008-10-22 15:43:11


very nicely written piece....thanx a ton! I believe that everything can and should be explained to children irrespective of their age......actually it is ta challenge to us adults to simplify and demystify experiences and events and answer their questions.....and yes, many a time you will find yourself asking questions about the event to yourself! and then wonder why you never even thought of asking such a question to your parents ever! When you ask yourself a question, you begin to learn. PRIYA


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