Understanding death as an opportunity for growth

Losses are unavoidable. They are an inevitable part of the landscape that defines a child’s development. Examples might be: the first time an infant is aware of her mother’s momentary absence; the toddler’s struggle with separation and autonomy at bedtime, the preschooler’s brave leap from her safe, known environment to a bigger world of a classroom. But with each loss comes an opportunity to reassure parents that each loss is an opportunity for growth. 

In contrast to the normal losses we expect as part of development, death-even though an inevitable part of the lifecycle- represents a true crisis to many adults as well as children. Fortunately, even crisis situations, (including death) also present an opportunity for growth and for strengthening our capacity to deal with future stress. Even children facing a death can be coached through the skills of mastering the crisis and emerging with new emotional strengths.  For this to happen, help is required in the following areas:

  • Realistic perception of the loss: having adequate and age-appropriate information about what happened
  • Help in expressing immediate feelings
  • Adequate situational supports: having a network of people currently or potentially in the child’s life to assist with the variety of practical needs that arise
  • Adequate coping mechanisms: having in place well-functioning ways of dealing with the anxiety generated by the loss

Talking to Children About Loss

In her book, Talking to Children About LossMaria Trozzi, Program Director of Joanna’s Place, uses captivating stories and thoughtful analysis, to explain how to handle the difficult job of talking with children and adolescents about loss.

Helping children understand death

To support the child in understanding and coping, we need a developmental framework ourselves to appreciate a child’s cognitive abilities.  Although Piaget did not specifically address children’s ability to understand death, much of the current thinking about how children perceive death comes from his theories about children’s cognitive development. This framework is very helpful in assessing a child’s reaction to the death of a loved one.  However, as useful as this framework is, children regress under stress and the boundaries are meant as developmental markers only. A child’s history with loss or death as well as her individual temperament and prior ability to cope with change also inform us of her reaction to death.

Infants (0-2 years)

  • If the deceased was the primary caregiver, identify a surrogate caregiver.
  • Learn the caregiver’s routines.
  • Provide a consistent, nurturing, dependable environment.
  • Be prepared for regression.

Preschoolers (3-5 years)

  • Because preschoolers view death as temporary or reversible, give them simple, straightforward explanations of death.  “Grandpa died. His body totally stopped working.”
  • Preschoolers will try to define death and ask clarifying questions.  Be particularly careful to respond with concrete, simple explanations. Avoid euphemisms like “lost, sleeping, gone to heaven, with the angels.” At best they confuse young children. At worst, they terrify them.
  • Avoid using a spiritual connection to the death, as this is confusing to very young children. 

Latency age (6-8 years)

  • At this age, it is important to normalize the fears associated with death.  Children at this age understand death to be final, which can cause them to question their own and others’ safety.  
  • Face questions directly, honestly, and with detail.  Be prepared to address how life will be the same or different, as well as specific details about the death (what happened to the body?, was there blood?, etc.)
  • Remind children that everyone dies someday, but that most people live to be very, very, old.
  • Reinforce to the child that you are facing this life event together.

Pre-adolescents (9-12 years)

  • Pre-adolescents need help in processing the complicated feelings that can accompany death, including guilt and fear.
  • Build trust with children in this age group by answering questions directly and honestly.  Many pre-adolescents will stop asking questions if they suspect that adults will be embarrassed or resistant to give them the answers they need.
  • Verbalize that, in spite of your grief, you are still able to care for your children. Help them feel that they are safe and that their lives will go on.
  • Talk about your own grief and how your feelings influence your own behavior.

Adolescents (13-18 years)

  • Adolescents need adults in their life to help them sort out the often colliding feelings of sadness, anger, disbelief and isolation.
  • Adults might often feel rejected when attempting to provide emotional support to adolescents. However, just their continued presence and availability during the crisis are actually very therapeutic. Adults must interpret this distancing as developmentally appropriate and respect it while remaining available for reassurance and support.
  • Adults who teach and live with adolescents must help them face the stark reality of the act of suicide, an increasing phenomenon.  Adolescents need to understand the finality of suicide, and be guided to look for help with problem-solving.