A child's ability to understand death varies according to his or her age.
Infants and Toddlers feel a loss through the absence of a loved one, interruption in their regular routine, and through the grief and stress they sense in their parents or other family members. Make sure to spend extra time holding and cuddling the child, and try to keep them on a regular schedule as much as possible.
Younger children might have trouble understanding the permanence of death or differentiating between fantasy and reality. They also might believe the death of a loved one is a form of punishment for something the child did. When you talk to young children about death, make sure to use concrete language, avoid euphemisms, and reassure the child that the death is not a consequence of something he or she did.
Older children are beginning to understand the permanence of death, and might associate it with old age or personify it in terms of frightening images or a cartoonish boogeyman. They often know more about how the body works, and have more specific questions. It's important to answer their questions to the best of your ability, and provide as much specific, factual information as possible. Try to keep them to regular routines, and give them opportunities for the constructive venting of feelings and grief.
Teenagers process grief more like adults, experiencing anger and sadness as they begin to cope. Don't feel disappointed if it seems that they may want to talk more to their friends than to parents, this is normal and can help them to share their feelings and heal. Because their grief is similar to that of an adult, a teenager may take longer to recover from a loss than a younger child. Questions may come up about mortality and vulnerability, and your role is to empathize with them, listen to their concerns, and remind them that their feelings are normal and things will get better with time.
The following links provide more detailed information on a variety of topics related to helping children and teens cope with loss.
When Families Grieve™ is a special guide that was created by Sesame Workshop, the educational organization behind Sesame Street. This guide helps explore children's understanding of death and offers information about communicating with a child, ideas for coping together, and ways to move forward with your family after the loss off a loved one.
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Barr Harris, a center for children's grief, created this list of recommended children's books that help teach ways to deal with death and grief. The easy-to-read stories can open up a meaningful discussion between you and your child and will help children make sense of their feelings in order to understand what they are experiencing.
Here you'll find a Huffington Post article by Judith Acosta containing advice and guidance from her book Verbal First Aid, which counsels parents on ways to help kids heal from fear and pain in a variety of situations, including the death of a loved one. If you find the advice in the article helpful, you may want to read her book for even more insight.