• Question
    A beloved teacher at school is dying, and my husband and I are wondering how to talk to our children about what is happening. They are asking questions about death and grief and we’re not sure how to respond; when are children old enough to learn about death? [OR: Should we let our child go to the funeral?]
    Answer

    Death is a part of life; children need to be able to ask questions and receive clear information in a way that is developmentally appropriate. Many experts believe children do not have a mature understanding of death until about age eight or nine, but this is a general guideline. Even with younger children, it is best to use precise terms when talking about death. For example, people typically refer to “losing” a loved one; younger children may interpret this literally and assume that the person can be found. You can also explain that being dead means that the body has stopped working, and that it cannot be fixed. It no longer feels cold or gets hungry, and that it does not feel any more hurt or pain. If the child asks whether you will die, respond that everybody dies someday, but that you hope to live to do things with the family for a long time. It is okay to say you don’t know the answer to a child’s question. You can even say, “No one knows for sure, but this is what I think.”

  • Question
    My wife died recently and my school-age children and I have received a great deal of support from our community. I sometimes am concerned that my younger son is in denial; even at my wife’s funeral, I saw him running around the church playground with his friends. Should he be showing more signs of grief?
    Answer

    Remember that children cannot tolerate long periods of sadness; playing and participating in their usual activities can bring comfort and familiarity. This does not mean that they didn’t love the person who died, nor does it mean that they are being disrespectful. It is okay to permit or encourage children to have fun like they did before the death. While you should expect some periods of sadness or other emotional responses, significant changes in your son’s behavior or patterns might be signs that he is experiencing problems associated with the death. In these instances, it’s appropriate to obtain advice from a specialist in child bereavement counseling. Many school-age children benefit by participating in bereavement groups with other children who have suffered losses. Children hate to be different from their peers; in a group, they discover they are not alone.