It is inevitable and inescapable in the history of families that family members will die. Death being an irreversible and often very sad event, most parents find it hard to talk about. It is much easier to explain to children that the Tooth Fairy isn't real rather than to tell them that their beloved grandfather or pet has died. Many parents try to shield children from the pain of loss that gives death its power by avoiding talking about it, or concealing their own feelings about the death (e.g., not allowing themselves to cry in front of the children or pretending to be happy when they're really sad).
Parents and other caregiver adults typically avoid talking with children about death for several different reasons. First, adults don't want to see their children hurting or sad or frightened. Second, some adults think that children are too young to understand what has happened, or to cope with the emotions death provokes. Third, sometimes adults are so focused on their own sense of loss and pain that they forget or are unable to reach out to their children as well.
It is true that children don't understand death in the same way that adults do, but it is a mistake to think that they don't think about death or come to terms with it in their own way. Very young children typically do not understand the permanency of death, but they are aware that something has changed and that someone is no longer around. Very young children may think that death is reversible. However, by age 7, children start to realize that when someone or something dies, that person or thing is permanently gone. Death affects children much like adults, in that they can experience different and sometimes conflicting feelings such as sadness, numbness, anger, confusion, guilt, fear, questioning, and denial. Children can experience this range of emotions as intensely and deeply as adults. Typically, children are affected less by the loss of older relatives/friends, or relatives they haven't spent much time with. In contrast, they will feel more negatively impacted by the loss of a close relative/friend (e.g., a grandmother that lived nearby) or family pet that has been around for several years. The loss of an immediate parent, caregiver or sibling will have the most significant impact on children, as the loss of one of their relied-upon and taken-for-granted figures will most profoundly alter their lives and self-understanding.
Adults' action to deny to children the meaning of death, to pretend that a loss has not occurred or that it is not large, or failure to help children express their grief can make children's grief and adjustment process harder rather than easier.
Children can learn how to cope with death by watching how their parents and caregivers cope with it. Children who see their parents hiding their tears and avoiding talking about the lost loved one are likely to conclude that hiding or stifling their own feelings regarding the loss is the best way to cope. This denial of grief can lead to maladaptive coping, depression, anxiety, angry outbursts, and other negative acting-out behaviors.
Instead of avoiding discussions about death, parents should talk honestly with children about their feelings of loss in constructive, age-appropriate ways. It is okay to cry in front of children, as well as to share memories of the lost person or pet. Parents should also invite children to talk about their own feelings regarding the death. Providing reassurance that it is okay for different people to have different feelings and to act differently after someone has died is comforting and helps children to feel normal.
Children should be encouraged (but not forced!) to mourn the loss of the loved one. One life-affirming way to do this is celebrate the deceased person's life with the children. Families can tell funny stories about the lost person, make a collage of favorite photos, or participate together in activities that that person loved, like going fishing or making favorite family recipes. Religious parents may also wish to educate children regarding relevant religious beliefs about the nature of death, and hopefully in so doing, offer children a measure of comfort. Encouraging children's questions is appropriate, and it's always okay for parents to say, "I don't know" in response to queries for which there are no right answers. Death is a mysterious and existential event, resisting explanation and all attempts to smooth it over. It is okay for children to know this.
Many families question whether to involve children in funeral activities. In our view, by middle-childhood, children will generally be old enough to participate in such rites. However, parents should remain patient and never force children to participate in activities they seem uncomfortable or hesitant to engage. It's best to explain ahead of time to children what will occur during the viewing, wake, or funeral so they know what to expect and can choose whether to attend or stay home.
Parents may want to arrange for other trusted adult caregivers not directly affected by the loss to come along to the services in case children become overwhelmed and want to go home. For example, many Protestant viewing services can last four to six hours duration. Even in the best of situations, most school-aged children do not have the emotional patience to stand around with adults in their dressiest clothes without being able to play or run around. If Bobby becomes worn out after the first hour or two at Grandpa's funeral, having a babysitter or relative take him home can avoid disruptions during the ceremony.
Grief is a very individualized process. Different people grieve at different paces and in different ways. It can be difficult for both adults and children to move on after a death and resume their daily routines. After the strongest pains of loss have faded and grieving appears to be over, feelings of loss may persist, returning from time to time thereafter, especially on special anniversaries such as the deceased person's birthday, the anniversary of their death, etc. This is what happens during the course of normal grief. However, should a child (or adult for that matter) develop chronic and unremitting extreme grieving symptoms that persist for months or years, and which interfer with functioning such as avoiding going to school, insomnia, recurrent nightmares, ongoing withdrawal from daily activities, or a drop in grades, parents should consult with a mental health professional.