How to Tell a Child a Family Member Has Died

By Shelley Frost
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An honest, age-appropriate explanation helps your child understand the death of a loved one, an event that is traumatic and sometimes confusing. Losing a relative is often an unfamiliar experience to kids and may leave your child feeling angry, sad and scared about others dying. Your child's age, developmental level and experience with death affect how she understands and deals with such a loss.

Assess Child's Ability to Understand

Before telling your child about the death of a loved one, assess what he knows and can understand. Preschool children don't usually understand that death is permanent, according to the National Institutes of Health. Somewhere between the ages of 5 and 9, children begin to understand that all living things die and that death is permanent. They still may not relate to death on a personal level or understand that they too will someday die. Also consider whether your child has dealt with death already, such as the death of an acquaintance or family pet.

Explain the Death

Once you determine your child's level of understanding, tailor your answers to her awareness of death. Tell your child directly that the family member died. Avoid easing the blow by telling her that a relative went to sleep and will never wake up, for example, or went away and won't come back. This creates fear in young children, who take things literally. She might fear going to sleep or worry that anyone who leaves won't return. Explain what it means to die if your child doesn't know about death. Make it clear that the person will not come back to life.

The details you share about the cause of death depend on the situation and what your child can handle. If the family member was in an accident, you might say, "Grandma was in a car accident. The doctors tried to help her, but her injuries were too bad and her body stopped working." Don't hold back your own emotions when you tell your child about the death. Seeing you grieve lets your child know it is acceptable to show emotion.

Encourage and Answer Questions

Depending on his age and level of understanding, your child may have questions about the death. Encourage him to share his feelings and ask questions to help him deal with the grieving process. The questions he asks can provide clues about what he's thinking, allowing you to better help him process his feelings. For example, if he asks if you or other family members will die, he may feel scared and worried that other people he loves will die soon.

Your child might ask what it's like to die, if death hurts or what happens to the body. He might want more details about the circumstances of the family member's death. Answer the questions openly using words your child can understand. A child might ask the same questions repeatedly. Give him reassurance and answer with patience even if you've already gone over the information.

Support Mourning

Children react to death individually and sometimes unpredictably. One death might affect a child intensely, while another seems to be insignificant. Your job is to support your child through the mourning process without judging.

Mourning or feelings of sadness might come and go, sometimes long after the death, as your child works through the loss. You also might notice regression in behaviors. Your school-age child might wet the bed or start sucking her thumb, for example. Children might think they hear or see the deceased family member, especially in the first six months, said Dr. Bruce D. Perry and Jana Rubenstein, a licensed professional counselor.

If you or your child have difficulty handling the death, seek help from a professional, such as your family physician or a mental health professional. Major changes in your child's behavior, such as extreme anger, anxiety or withdrawal, indicate she might need professional support.

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