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How to Help Children Experiencing Death (8009)

How to Help Children Experiencing Death (8009) - Clinical Hub, Patient Education, Health and Nutrition Facts For You, Pediatrics, Parenting


How to Help Children Experiencing Death
Children understand death based on their age, development, and past experiences with
death. Children also learn about death by watching how friends and family cope with death.
Honest and early conversations about the death of a loved one with children of any age help
children begin to understand and cope with death.
Read below to learn how children understand and cope with death based on age.
Children 0 to 2 years old
Understanding of death:
ξ Aware of changes in environment
ξ Affected by physical and emotional
changes in caregivers
Common behaviors:
ξ Irritable and clingy
ξ Difficulty sleeping
How to help:
• Create a calm environment.
• Choose a small group of caregivers.
• Continue eating and sleeping routines.

Children 2 to 5 years old
Understanding of death:
ξ Death is temporary and can be reversed.
ξ Based on family’s actions and emotions.
ξ Not likely to think about what death means
for the future.
Common behaviors:
ξ Clingy
ξ Bedwetting
ξ Playful
ξ Cheerful
ξ Play pretend death

What to say:
ξ Avoid words and phrases such as
“sleeping” or “passed away”.
ξ Use the words death, dying, and dead:
Example: “Your Mom’s heart was not
working and she died.”
ξ Use child’s interests to help you explain:
Example: “Your Dad can’t eat like you
can; he can’t breathe air to play at the park
like you can.”
ξ Give simple and honest answers to
ξ Child may ask the same questions, answer
the same way every time.
How to help:
ξ Let child play at home, school, and
ξ Talk about child’s feelings:
Example: “It is ok to be sad or cry.”
ξ Express some of your feelings in front of
your child.
Example: “I am sad, too.”
ξ Allow safe expression of feelings through
art & play.
ξ Continue child’s routines, like going to
school or daycare.

Children 6 to 12 years old
Understanding of death:
ξ Begin to understand that death is final and
cannot be reversed.
ξ Younger children may think of death as
something that happens to others.
ξ Older children may worry death will
happen to them.
ξ Older children may worry about other
family and friends dying.
Common behaviors:
ξ May have many questions about details of
death and dying.
ξ May think something they said or did
caused death.
ξ Nightmares.
ξ May act tough, naughty, funny, or sad at
home or school.

What to say:
ξ Find out what child already knows.
Example: “Why is Dad in the hospital?”
ξ Be honest when answering child’s
ξ Ask about thoughts.
Example: What do you think about that?”
ξ Ask about feelings.
Example: “How are you feeling about what
you’ve heard about your Dad?”
How to help:
ξ Give honest answers to questions.
ξ Correct confusion child may have about
ξ Expect child to be moody or sad at times.
ξ Keep child involved in interests to help
express feelings.
Examples: school, sports, art.
ξ Ask if child would like to visit loved one in
the hospital.
ξ Ask if child would like to help create
family memorials.

Children 13 to 18 years old
Understanding of death:
• Death is final and can happen to anybody.
• Past experience with death may affect
coping with current and future deaths.
• Thinks about the future without the
deceased family member.
• Question learned afterlife beliefs
Example: heaven.
Common behaviors:
• Child may deny that death will happen.
• Child may feel or say “Death will not ever
happen to me.”
• Child may not show emotions.
• Child may reach out to friends for support
instead of family.
• Child may want to spend less time with

What to say:
• Ask “What would you like to know?”
• Give honest answers to questions.
• Be available to talk or listen.
How to help:
ξ Ask if child would like to be a part of end
of life process of loved one.
ξ Ask child to help create family memorials
and rituals.
ξ Support child to get support from friends
and school.
ξ Explain importance of caring for self
during the death of a loved one.
ξ Respect if child needs a break from
conversation or environment.

Your health care team may have given you this information as part of your care. If so, please use it and call if you
have any questions. If this information was not given to you as part of your care, please check with your doctor. This
is not medical advice. This is not to be used for diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. Because each
person’s health needs are different, you should talk with your doctor or others on your health care team when using
this information. If you have an emergency, please call 911. Copyright © 9/2017University of Wisconsin Hospitals and
Clinics Authority. All rights reserved. Produced by the Department of Nursing. HF#8009