Pregnancy and infant loss can affect other children in the family, so how we communicate with them about death is very important. Being open and honest, listening, answering their questions in an age-appropriate manner, allowing them to be involved, and helping them say goodbye can help children process and heal from their grief.
This is often a very difficult task for parents. But talking about death, rather than avoiding the subject, can be protective for children, even if you feel you don’t have all the answers. Young children think in very concrete terms; it is okay to use the words “dead” or “dying” with them; explain that means the body has stopped working, and there is no pain.
Let your children know that you may be sad, and that it is okay for them to be sad. Let them know they can talk to you any time about how they are feeling. Let them know that they are safe, and that you love them.
How Children Understand Death
Infants and Toddlers
Children this age have no understanding of death, but they do react to separation from their parents, and are in tune to parental emotions and anxiety. For children this age, try to spend time with them every day, and keep their routine as consistent as possible, to help them feel secure.
Children this age do not understand that death is permanent, but tend to view death as temporary and reversible, like someone who is asleep. They may feel that they somehow caused the death to happen, and may also think that something similar could happen to them. Children this age may show some regression in behavior (bed-wetting, thumb sucking, separation anxiety, baby talk). They may need to talk about the death often, or ask the same questions over and over again.
You can help by telling them what things to expect, patiently repeating answers/explanations, using concrete words (rather than words like sleeping, lost, taken), and keeping consistent routines and schedules.
Children age 5-9 may see death as possible, but only for other people. Older children begin to realize that death is final, universal, and may include them. They may show more interest in biologic aspects of death, or details of the funeral. They may show sadness or anxiety, physical symptoms (headache, abdominal pain), and seem distracted or withdrawn. You can help by giving honest explanations, offering choices about funeral attendance or other ways to say goodbye, listening, and validating their feelings.
Children this age are beginning to think in more abstract terms, and can better understand the implications of death. They may be angry or critical, or want to be treated more like an adult. You can help by listening, supporting their choices in how to be involved or say goodbye, and letting them know their feelings are important.
General Reminders for All Ages
- Be open to a child’s questioning about death. Don’t change the subject.
- Be honest. If you do not know the answer, say “I don’t know.”
- Give accurate information; answer only what they want to know.
- Use the right words. Avoid saying things like “he passed away,” “he was taken from us,” or “we lost him.” Don’t equate death with sleep.
- Allow them their own feelings.
- Expose the child to the dying person, and allow them to say goodbye.
- Allow the child the option of attending the funeral or other rituals.
- Understand that humor or other distractions may serve as a release of tension.
- Be aware of guilt feelings. Children need to be told that they didn’t cause the death and that they could not have prevented it.
- Show love and affection.
- Reassure the child that he or she will be cared for and not abandoned.
- Avoid changes in the family or the child’s routine whenever possible. Maintaining routine reinforces feelings of security.
- Be open with your emotions.
- Talk about the deceased and remember him/her together.