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Discussing Death with Children

Developmental Concepts of Grief

Infant to 2 years of age

  • Have no understanding of death, but react to separation from caregivers and the emotions of primary caregivers.
  • Feel a sense of loss and react to it. May be more withdrawn and/or distressed than usual.

Children 2 to 5 years of age

  • Think death is reversible; people can die and come back to life.
  • Believe the dead body can continue to think, feel, see, and hear.
  • Believe in magical powers-that they can "will or wish" someone back to life.
  • May have nightmares, increased fears, and anxiety.
  • May act out aggressively and/or regress.
  • May ask the same question over and over.
  • May feel some responsibility for the death, or see death as a punishment for something they did.
  • May have a harder time with feelings of being left out than feelings of sadness. It is very important to include young children in the process of death and bereavement.
  • Take your words literally. To a young child "gone to sleep" means gone to bed and "lost" means can't find. Always use the words "dead," "died," or "dying."

Children 6 to 8 years of age

  • Begin to understand that death is final.
  • Cannot understand that death happens to everybody.
  • Feel confused over permanence of death.
  • Characters such as goblins or zombies can make children feel that death is a person.
  • May act out aggressively and/or regress.
  • May request more detailed, biological explanations of death. May also want detailed information about the deceased's illness or injury.
  • May feel concerned about security issues. Often perceive they and their parents have an increased vulnerability to injury, illness, and death.
  • Realize the loss of a close relationship. Talking about readjustment and emotions is helpful.
  • May be more physical in their emotions and their grieving.
  • Begin to express rather than hide their feelings. May display more of an on/off method of grieving.

Children 8 to 12 years of age

  • Increased curiosity about the biology of death.
  • Difficulty with peer interactions. The death of a loved one makes them feel different at a time when they want to be the same as everyone else. It is important to find ways to build their self-esteem.
  • Shock, denial, anxiety and anger are all very common.
  • May be increasingly aggressive. More acting out than usual (including being argumentative and combative) is normal. Avoid power struggles.
  • Regressive behavior may be seen as increased clinging to adults.
  • May experience big emotional releases. These can be scary for children at this age. Be there to accept, support and listen.
  • May appear to be totally unaffected by the death.

Adolescents through Adulthood

  • Better understand the finality of death.
  • Begin to understand one's own vulnerability.
  • May begin to ponder the meaning of life.
  • Recognize the impact death has on the family. May feel insecure about the future.
  • Can sometimes release emotions related to other existing problems.
  • Often try to hide their emotions so their friends don't see them as abnormal or different. Conformity to peer group is at it's highest.
  • May not feel comfortable talking to family and friends. Difficulty knowing who to turn to.
  • May have difficulties with school, sleeping and/or regressive behaviors.
  • May feel pressure to respond in the same way an adult might.
  • Actively explore and/or question religious and/or spiritual beliefs. May ask questions such as "What kind of God would take my father way?"

Text provided by:
Caring Connections
A Hope and Comfort in Grief
University of Utah Health Sciences Center
Caring Connections is sponsored in part by: The Ben B. and Iris M. Margolis Foundation.

Related Resources

Children's Grieving

Katie Couric gives a helping hand to kids and parents grappling with death.

Talking about Uncle Jack »
A video by Sesame Street to grieve as a family and find comfort together.

Children's Developmental Stages and Reactions to Death »
A chart outlining reactions to death according to children’s developmental stages.

Letting Children Share in Grief »
A New York Times article about the changing attitudes toward grief and children.

Hello Grief »
A place to learn and share about grief and loss.