Child Life Corner: Discussing Death with Children

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Here are some things to consider when talking with children about the death of a loved one.

 Certified Child Life Specialist Krista Hauswald

Part of my role as a Child Life Specialist is to provide support to the siblings of dying children while they are at Riley Hospital. My name is Abigail Rainey, and I have been a Child Life Specialist at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health for the past three years. As a Child Life Specialist, I help parents navigate how to talk with their children about the death of their siblings. I provide options for families to create memory keepsake pieces, and am available to help support children in their initial emotional response to what is happening. Here are some things to consider when talking with children about the death of a loved one.

INFANTS TO AGE 2: Infants, babies and toddlers respond to anxiety or stress around them, and may be more irritable. Consistent routines are best for this age group. Extra physical affection can also help soothe and calm them.

AGES 2-4: Death is not understood as permanent, and often seems reversible. It is important to give short, consistent, and honest responses to questions that may get asked repetitively. A child in this age group may be able to state “My brother or sister died”, but will also ask “When will he or she come back?” or “When can I see them again?” A few suggested responses are “Yes, your brother or sister did die, and they can’t come back” or “He or she can’t come back because they died.” You can also give short responses such as “Their body was so sick, it could not work anymore, and they died. When someone dies, they can’t come back.” For kids of all ages, using the words “death and dying” allow for less misconceptions to take place. If a young child hears “They are sleeping peacefully forever” they may fear going to sleep.  Keeping a consistent routine (as much as possible) is best for this age group, and can allow for them to feel like there is some sense of consistency and control.

AGES 4-7: Kids in this age group have a belief in “magical thinking.” It is not uncommon for a child in this age range to think “It was my fault they died. I was mad, and thought they should die, and they did!” While death is still seen as reversible, kids in this age group can be very interested in the process, such as the “why” and “how.” Some suggested responses are, “It isn’t your fault they died. You did nothing that could cause this.” Encouraging normal play, such as reading stories, or doing crafts can help children know that it is okay to still play even though they may be sad.

AGES 7-11: Kids in this age group are able to better understand the finality of death. Kids may have more of a desire for details, so that they are better able to make sense of what is happening. They are also concerned with how others are responding to their grief, and are trying to learn how to respond themselves. As a parent, you can model healthy emotional expression, such as taking a walk, or doing breathing exercises to help you relax.  You can also offer and validate other expressive outlets, such as punching or throwing a pillow on the floor when they are angry, having quiet or alone time when they need it, or talking with other people.  

AGES 11-18: Kids and teens in this age group are able to understand death as more permanent. Some teens may want a lot of information, and some may want little information. Take cues from questions they are asking, and be honest in your answers. Allow privacy if it is desired, and identify who could be available to help them talk through things, or listen when they are ready.

You know your child best. Take cues from them. If they need a break to play, spend time with friends or just relax, let them take some time. Just like adults, kids cope differently. If you are concerned about behavior you are seeing, or questions that are being asked, reach out to a counselor, your doctor, or another medical professional so that appropriate help may be provided.

Please Contact if you have questions about how the child life department at Riley may be able to help your child.

-- By Abigail Rainey, CCLS
   Certified Child Life Specialist
   Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health. 

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