Topic Overview

Emotional development

Consider your child’s age and emotional development so that you can
explain loss and death in a way that he or she will understand.

  • Children younger than 2 years of age cannot express in words what is going on in their lives. You
    can reassure the child by holding and cuddling him or her. Stroking the child
    while softly talking, singing, or humming can be very soothing. Smile often, and
    approach the child at his or her eye level.
  • Children between 2 and 3 years of age are just learning to use
    words to express themselves. Talk with your child using some of the same words
    he or she uses. Speak clearly, but be brief when you explain a loss to your
    child. Give your child a choice whenever possible. For example, you can say,
    “Mommy and Daddy need to go to the hospital to see Grandpa. You are going to
    Aunt Jane’s. Do you want to put some toys in this bag to take with
  • Children between 3 and 6 years of age
    often believe that their thoughts and wishes cause things to happen. You can
    reassure your child that he or she did not cause the “bad” thing to happen. You
    can say, “Joey fell from the tree and hit his head. I know you were there and
    you might think you made it happen because you were angry with Joey. It’s okay
    to be angry with someone. Your anger didn’t cause Joey to
  • Children between 6 and 10 years of age don’t always fully understand events that occur in their lives.
    They may understand only part of what is going on around them. They may
    invent conclusions or draw the wrong conclusions about things they don’t
    understand, resulting in misconceptions about what is happening. They may
    develop fears, such as fear of death.
  • Children between 10 and 12 years of age are able to understand loss the way
    adults do. They see death as permanent and irreversible. They often want to be
    included in all activities as though they were adults. Include your child in
    the activities related to the loss, such as choosing a house when you are

Helping your child

Here are some general guidelines for helping children when they are

  • Use simple, clear words.
    Use words the child can understand. Use correct medical terms when talking
    about disease and reasons for death. Do not say things in a way that may
    confuse the child.

    • If you tell a child that “Uncle Steve’s body
      is in the ground,” the child may wonder when Uncle Steve will come out of the
    • If you tell a child that “Sally is going to sleep for a
      long, long time,” the child may wonder when Sally will wake up.
  • Be honest. If a family
    member has a serious illness, for example, explain the situation in words that
    the child can understand. You can say, “Uncle Thomas has a bad illness that is
    causing his lungs to fill with germs. The germs are too strong for his body to
    get rid of them. We don’t think he is going to live much
  • Talk about the meaning of the loss.
    Loss is a natural part of life. You may want to use an example to help the
    child understand the meaning of the loss. For example, say, “Remember when you lost your pet rabbit? You were very upset because you wouldn’t see him again. Daddy feels that way now because he lost his
  • Prepare children for expected losses.
    If you are planning to move, include the child in plans and preparations. If
    someone in the family is ill and close to death, you can say, “Grandma is sick,
    and we want to spend some time with her today.” When death gets closer, you can
    say, “Grandma is very sick, and we don’t think she’s going to live much
    longer. We are going to say good-bye to her.”
  • Involve children. If a loved one is dying in a hospital, ask
    your child whether he or she wants to visit the hospital. Ask your child
    whether he or she wishes to attend the funeral or memorial service. Children
    generally have a good sense of what they can handle. If your child wishes to
    attend the service, assure him or her that you (or another person) will be
    there to answer questions or address concerns. Some children don’t want to
    visit a dying loved one or attend a memorial service. This is okay too. Don’t
    force your child to do something against his or her wishes.

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ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Anne C. Poinier, MD – Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Jean S. Kutner, MD, MSPH – Geriatric Medicine,
Kathleen Romito, MD – Family Medicine

Current as ofOctober 6, 2017