Do Children Mourn?

Instead of talking openly about death, you often hear people tell children “They went to be with God.” “They went to heaven where they were needed.” “They’re sleeping.” Do children really understand what is happening?

Families with young children often wonder what to say to them. They may be anxious about discussing death or mentioning the person’s name. They may not allow children to attend funerals, thinking it would be “too traumatizing.”

How death affects the life of a child depends on their age and developmental stage. How they mourn and adjust to this loss will depend on the adults and caregivers surrounding them. We need to talk to children about death using words and concepts they will understand. We are all individuals. What is helpful for some, may not be helpful for others, but here are some guidelines that may assist:

Infants to two years old:

They will sense loss and pick-up on the reactions of the adults around them. They may change their eating, sleeping and toilet habits. Keeping a routine is important.

2-6 year olds: Family is the center of their world. There is no understanding of death’s finality: they see the Roadrunner drop an anvil on Wile E. Coyote and no one dies. They believe that dead people still eat., drink, etc., only “in heaven.” Their thinking is magical “You wish it – it happens.” They may ask over and over, “Where did Grandpa go? Is he coming back?” It is important to use the right words to describe what happened. “Grandpa died. He is not going to come back. We miss him.”

6-9 year olds: At this age children may personify death. “death is a monster that took my Daddy away.” The finality is becoming more real. Expressing the sense of anger, guilt, or sadness is difficult to do with words; mourning is often expressed in behaviors. Allow the child to express their feelings. Help them understand they feel sad or mad “because Mom died and it is a very, very sad thing that happened to us.”

9-12 year olds: The finality of death is more real in their thinking. They may see it as a punishment for poor behavior. Their sense of right and wrong is stronger. They need reassurances that they did not do anything to cause this death. They have many more questions about burials and who will care for them now.

Teenagers: They understand death as inevitable and may have experienced the death of a friend or schoolmate. However, they do not believe it will happen to them. They think more like an adult, but they may not have the verbal skills to express their loss in words.

Some tips: Talking about death for all children is easier if they feel they have permission to say anything on their mind. This is not always easy for adults, but it goes a long way in helping the child feel secure. For younger children, answers need to be shorter. Children will take information, go play and come back with more questions. Each child is an individual. What helps one 8-year old may not help another. Children will experience anger, guilt and fear. They need reassurance they will continue to be cared for and loved. Children mourn the loss at each developmental stage of their lives. So as they age, they may need more information about the death, or they may express strong grief reactions many years after the death of the loved one. If you don’t know what is going on with this child, ask. They will tell you.

By Valerie Sanchez, LCSW, CT, – Director of Bereavement