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A boy looks seriously as he processes the death of a loved one.
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Helping Children Deal With Death

With any loss a child suffers, you may be called on to help that child deal with death.

  • During the night, a fire breaks out in a home. The parents manage to carry out two of their three children. When the blaze is extinguished, the body of their 2-year-old daughter is found. The parents and their surviving 5- and 8-year-old children are devastated. “We lost our baby today,” the father cries to reporters.
  • In a quiet neighborhood, a car strikes a boy on his bicycle. The child was only 12 years old. Along with his parents, survivors include a 6-year-old brother.
  • An 11-year-old girl is fatally shot, the victim of gang violence. Her parents and two siblings are left in shock wondering how this could happen to them.

These are not fabricated events. They took place in one community during the last few months. At some point, all children are forced to cope with death. Whether death strikes a family member or friend, whether the death takes place when the child is in preschool or high school, death’s impact can last a lifetime. Like adults, children need to know the biblical truth: “Weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” Here are ways to minister to grieving children.

Helping Children Deal With Death

Identify each child’s level of understanding of death.

The amount of information, degree of detail, and the language used concerning a death should vary with the developmental stage of each child. Children under 2 have very little understanding of death. Between 2 and 6, children display magical thinking. For them death is reversible. They’ll ask when the dead person is coming home again. From ages 6 through 9, children comprehend the finality of death but will often regress to magical thinking. Children over 9 acquire a more mature understanding of death and realize it’s irreversible.

Use simple, concrete language.

Younger children view their world literally, as in the case of a 6-year-old whose grandfather died. “Everybody’s been talking about granddad’s body being at the funeral home,” the boy said. “I thought that when you died, they must cut off your head.” Use only basic and simple concepts to explain death.

Avoid euphemisms for death.

Metaphors and euphemisms confuse children. A child who is told, “Grandmother is sleeping” will be afraid to fall asleep and never awaken. Or a child who hears, “We lost daddy today” can waste great emotional energy hoping her father will someday be found.

Stop, look, and listen.

After a death, give a grieving child undivided attention when feelings connected to bereavement emerge. Let a child express sadness, anger, or guilt. Grief forced underground can emerge months or years later to haunt and hurt the child. “The child’s feelings and concerns should take precedence over almost everything else,” advises child therapist Claudia Jarratt in her book Helping Children Cope With Separation and Loss. “As soon as the child tries to share feelings, stop what you are doing immediately (or as soon as you can) and focus on the child.”

Give ample reassurance after a death.

Children’s grief is colored by fear. They fear abandonment. Maybe they fear that they too will die. Or maybe they fear they may have caused the death. When a parent has died, they fear the other parent will die also. Children need constant, loving reassurance that the surviving family will remain intact.

Be a role model.

Death and grief give you a unique opportunity to be a role model for children. Be emotionally genuine about your grief. “It is almost impossible to put up a false front successfully,” says psychologist Julius Segal. “Kids can discern when we are bereft even though we try mightily to hide it. Words cannot mask what lies in the heart; and when the two are dissonant, the mixed signals can increase the mystery and fears surrounding death.”

Emphasize God’s love.

Faith can be a great source of comfort to a child. Unfortunately, adults often misstate God’s role in a death and thereby confuse, rather than comfort, a child. For example, Helen Fitzgerald, a counselor and author of The Grieving Child, notes the confusion surrounding the phrase, “It’s all part of God’s plan.” “What plan?” Fitzgerald asks. “Is it part of God’s plan to have a mother killed by a plane dropping on top of her car (this actually happened)? Most parents want to teach children that God is a loving God, not a God that allows airplanes to fall on cars.”

Rather than speaking about God’s will and plan with a child, emphasize God’s love. Love is a concept that appeals to even the youngest child. We can gently remind children, “God loves us and wants to help us. We can bring all of our fears and concerns to God in prayer. God will help us.” By responding sensitively to children, you’ll ensure they develop the coping skills they need to understand, manage, and respond to loss. Take time to help children cope with death, and make it possible for them to have a healthy bereavement.

Victor Parachin is a freelance writer in Virginia.

Looking for more teaching tips? Check out these ideas!

9 thoughts on “Helping Children Deal With Death

  1. When my 17 yr old son died in a hunting accident, and his little brother, sister, nieces, nephews , when they asked where Jerry was, I told them
    “Remember how Jerry’s eyes sparkled when he laughed & teased, & played with you? That part of him, that part of him went to be with Jesus. This part of him, his body, is only the shell we live in until we go to be with Jesus.” It was little nodding heads all around me. They asked if they could touch him, and when I looked at the funeral director,he nodded. I told the children that they could but Jerry’s body woul feel cold.
    All afternoon the children would run up,p0at his hair,step up on the stool the director had p0laced for them, and even give him a kiss. Those children were saying goodbye and getting closure in a way that the adults didn’t. The adults struggled with it for a much longer time.
    At the time of Jerry’s death, 38 yrs ago, I could find nothing written on helping children deal with grief. I prayed a lot.

    • Children's Ministry Magazine

      Nancy, I am so sorry to hear about your son, Jerry’s death. Your description of death to the younger children was perfect. My God bless you and hold you and may the memories with your son forever stay clear in your mind.

  2. My brother was just killed in a terrible car crash yesterday on his 30th birthday. He has a 4 year old daughter and a 2 year old son. The family wants me to coach their mother on the discussion. Should the mom tell them or is it okay if I tell them with mom their? Any other advice would be extremely helpful. Feel free to reach out to me in email. We are devastated.

    To Nancy above, thanks for sharing your story. It’s given me great insight and support today. Bless you.

    • Jennifer Hooks

      Chris, we are so sorry for your loss. We will work on getting someone in touch with you.

  3. Beth Sievers

    My eight-year-old grandson’s best friend just died in a freak accident. My grandson is, of course, sad, angry, and doesn’t understand why. Are you aware of any videos or books that might be helpful to him and his other friends in dealing with this horrible event in their little lives? Thank you so much!

  4. Debbie Davis

    I have good friends. The husband had a heart attack and passed away. His 9 year old daughter is wise to The Word. Her parents were missionaries. She has recently stated she was almost saved but she can not be all the way saved because God allowed her Daddy to die and she is not sure she believes God is real because he did not let her daddy live. What scriptures and advice can you give to help explain the death of a parent and that God is real and loves her?

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Helping Children Deal With Death

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