Every child is unique, and their concept of death and dying will be influenced by many factors. These might include their age, culture, past experiences of illness and death, as well as the media, cartoons and films they may have seen.
Most importantly, they will be influenced by the adults in their lives. Adults who treat death as a part of life may help to reduce some of the fear and confusion that children might feel.
How a child might respond to loss depends on their age
Infants have no concept of death or dying. However, if the loss is of someone they have a strong attachment to, such as a parent, sibling or grandparent, you may notice changes in behaviour such as crying more or becoming more clingy.
What can you do to help? Give lots of cuddles, close contact and emotional support. Try to keep routines the same and, if possible, stay in familiar environments. If this is not possible, provide the child with toys or blankets that they are familiar with to help them to feel safe and secure.
Death still has very little meaning at this age. However, toddlers are very sensitive to the emotions of their parents/carers. As with infants, you may notice they become more clingy or demanding and cry more.
What can you do to help? As above, provide your child with plenty of close contact, reassurance and cuddles. Make attempts to keep their routines the same where possible.
From around the age of 3- 4 years old, young children begin to understand that death is something that happens to people, although they are unable to understand that is permanent and that person will not return.
What can you do to help? It’s very important that you don’t use phrases such as ‘they have gone to sleep’ or ‘they have gone’ as this can add to the confusion, raising more questions and uncertainty in a child’s mind and making them more anxious.
School age children
Children of this age may start to become curious about death: the process of how it happens and what happens afterwards. Questions about death can often worry parents and make them feel anxious about how best to reply. It’s important to be honest and factual. Take it slow; you don’t have to explain everything all in one go.
Ask for support from those around you. It’s important to consider that children of this age might think they can reverse death by ‘being good’, and may also be concerned that something may happen to them. Don’t be surprised or upset if your child becomes more concerned about how the loss will affect them.
They might ask questions such as ‘will I still get to go on holiday?’ or ‘can I still go to cubs on Wednesday night?’ This is normal and, as with children of a younger age, it’s important that, where possible, routines are maintained. This helps them feel safe and secure.
Usually, by the age of 10, children have a clearer understanding of death and dying; recognising that death is not reversible and that, sadly, their loved one will not be coming back.