Should Children Know About Death?

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OFDA Brochure – Should Children Know About Death?

Learning to accept death is a natural experience in life. It is most important that children not be excluded from participating in the funeral service. If exposed to a death, a child should be prepared for and guided through the period of mourning and grief.


Surprising, the “Protection-philosophy” with regard to a child’s knowledge of death is a current trend, stemming from our own death-denying culture. Similarly, parents often isolate children from the pain of growing old. They move grandma or grandpa to a nursing home or hospital. When death occurs, the child is frequently assigned to a babysitter while the rest of the family participates in the funeral. Allowing the child to be a part of the ceremonies and even the conversation helps relieve their fears.

The “mystery of death” may be avoided with proper explanation. Each time a child inquires and is denied adequate information, they delve into their own memory bank to create an answer. The longer such mysteries persist, the more difficult they are to correct.

Children may experience adverse emotional reactions. They may become angry hoping that their tantrums will restore normality. They may neglect playing and eating because of guilt – not realizing that their own actions had nothing to do with the death. These reactions are quite normal, but continuation may indicate maladjustment.


HONESTY should frame discussion of death with children, as in all “life-forming” subjects. Since the purpose is to reduce fear and induce trust, all information should be factual and therefore not easily discounted by “playground buddies”. There is nothing worse than being the last to know the secret and being given the excuse, “Honey, we didn’t think it best to tell you”.

SIMPLICITY is also vital. Too much explanation can cloud the mind when a child is exposed to new language and ideas.

ENVIRONMENT often impacts conversation. Whatever setting is chosen, it should ensure an atmosphere where expression can be released freely. Possibly staying in the comfort of the family room or going to the familiar backyard playground will spark questions and ease tension.

LOVE, warmth and reassurance should be shared. Closeness and involvement convince the child that their security is certain. Sorrow is often more easily faced with others. Actually, the child is comforted by the tears of his parents…realizing that if they were to die their parent would care. When preparing to tell a child about someone dying, clergy or a close friend may assist in the discussions.


Age is often an indicator of which aspect of death most concerns the child. It is a known fact a child old enough to love is old enough to grieve.

Up to Age 2

Infants and toddlers cannot understand death but they do feel the loss of the one who was there to nurture and care for them.

Age 2-4

Children at two, three and four years of age have little understanding of the meaning of death. The death should be shared with the child either by viewing the body or attempting to explain what has happened.

Age 5-7

A child five, six or seven years of age has a feeling of loss but it is not easy to grasp. It must be explained. Answer the questions in simple terms. Let them know a death has taken place by being present at the funeral home and the funeral service. Clinical studies show that denying a child the experience of sharing his loss through emotions may result in adjustment problems later.

Age 8-9

A child of eight or nine years of age has a capacity to grasp life’s mysteries. They will remember the experience vividly. Don’t avoid letting them attend the service. They have emotions too and they should be expressed.

Age 10-12

A youngster ten, eleven or twelve years of age feels the emotions of love and a deep feeling of loss. They know what death is and will want to be helpful so as to resolve their own feelings of loss. Include them in the arrangements and service.

Age 13-16

The adolescent may want to shelter their guilt feelings. They are not easily understood. They may refrain from emotions or expressions, but clinical studies show that teenagers often have more intense grief than any other age group. Encourage their friends to share their grief and attend the service. This gives them the support they need. They want to think of themselves as adults so treat them as such.

Each child is a unique individual and because of a variety of influences such as age, personality and social and religious background, certain guidelines should be followed in the discussion of death: 1. The individual child should be the main factor considered. 2. The child should be consulted and encouraged to participate, but not forced.


The reality of death is visually expressed by viewing the body. This helps the child to understand a loss has occurred. It is best to allow the child to view the body prior to the arrival of visitors. Upon the arrival of visitors, they will discover others also loved the deceased. They will, most assuredly, be absorbed in the experience of comforting and caring.

Funeral Service

The funeral is a ceremony which culminates the days of grief by paying tribute to a life lived. The mature child gains much strength from the sincere words expressed by clergy and friends.


The gravesite affords a lasting tangible memory. Witnessing the burial helps the child to identify the location of the body. If the child does not attend the interment, they should be taken to the cemetery at a later date.

By including the child in these traditions, many of their questions will already be answered.


Just as a tree must be exposed to rain, snow, wind and forces other than sunlight in order to grow, a developing child must face the unfortunate but acceptable aspects of life. Obviously a child will react to a death, but it is the responsibility of the parent to guide these reactions.

Emphasis should be placed on the happy experiences that were shared with the deceased so pleasant images are fresh and constantly being recalled. Above all, the youngster should be commended for all the unforgettable attention and happiness they gave the deceased. Their hurt will be lessened and their memories enhanced when they understand they contributed to the happiness of the deceased’s life.


Please Don’t Overlook Me!
By Bonnie BrightI know my size is smaller
My hands are littler
My legs are short
But my HEART
Can hurt just like yours

You’re and adult…
Please don’t overlook me!

I know my vocabulary isn’t the greatest
My attention span lacks longevity
My logic sometimes seems irrational,
But my MIND
Can question death just like yours can.

You’re an adult…
Please don’t overlook me!

I know my needs seem less important
My feelings seem less controlled
My actions are hard to understand,
But my BODY
Needs a hug just like yours does.

You’re OLDER
Please don’t overlook me!

I know tears are hard to show
Fears are difficult to face,
Death means not coming back,
But my SOUL
Searches for reassurance
Just like yours does.

And you’re hurting, too…
Please don’t overlook me!

Reprinted by Permission from Bereavement Publishing, Inc., 8133 Telegraph Drive, Colorado Springs, CO 80920.4/91

Reference Materials

Am I Still A Sister? by Alicia Sims
Death And The Classroom: A Teacher’s Guide to Assist Grieving Students by Cassini/Rogers
Fire In My Heart, Ice In My Veins: A Journal for Teenagers by Enid Samual Traisman, M.S.W.
Healing The Bereaved Child by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.
It Must Hurt A Lot by Doris Sanford & Graci Evans
Talking About Death (A Dialogue Between Parent and Child) by Earl A. Grollman, Ph.D.
Thank You For Coming To Say Goodbye (book & video) by Janice L. Roberts & Joy Johnson
The Fall of Freddie the Leaf by Leo Buscaglia, Ph.D.
What Bereave Children Want Adults To Know About Grief (booklet & Cassette) by Alan Wolfelt, Ph.D.
When A Pet Dies by Fred Rogers