ASK THE EXPERTS

How do I address death with my first-grader?

By Debra Collins, Family therapist

Question:

We recently had a death in the family. I want to make sure that I address the subject appropriately with my daughter. Can you advise me on how to address death with a first-grader and suggest some good books on the subject at a first-grade level?

Answer:

I'm sorry for your family's loss. Although death is a natural part of life, it can be difficult to discuss with children, especially when you are experiencing your own grief. Even if your child has never personally known anyone who died, they have likely been exposed through the media. By giving your child an opportunity to talk openly about death, you're letting her know she can rely on you in troubled times.

It may help your child to learn that everyone grieves differently based on their age, their relationship to the deceased, and their past experiences. If it seems appropriate, you might explain how your family copes with death, their beliefs about the afterlife, and the feelings they have about who died and how.

Children aged six to eight understand that death is final, but may not be fully aware that personal death is unavoidable. They are focused on who else might die and who would take care of them if something happened to you or your spouse. They need reassurance that they will be cared for.

Children at this age think in concrete terms, so it's best to avoid euphemisms. For example, saying "He went to sleep," might cause confusion. Children often feel responsible for "bad things" happening. Reassure them that death is not the result of anything they did or thought. They may also believe death is something that "comes and gets you." Be clear about how and what caused your relative's death.

Children may have difficulty verbalizing their feelings and may show their feelings through their behavior and physical reactions. Common normal grief reactions:

  • Being clingy, teary, anxious and overactive, or withdrawn.
  • Changes in sleep patterns, and complaints about being tired or having stomachaches.

Children have a limited capacity to tolerate pain. Sometimes they appear very concerned and need reassurance, or they may seem indifferent. They grieve intermittently and in brief and intense spurts. To help navigate through the uncertainty, parents can offer safety and continuity by discussing what is "the same and different" since the death occurred. Participating in rituals (including funerals) can be helpful to honor their relationship with the deceased.

Grief is an ongoing process for everyone. We grieve over time and re-visit the loss at different developmental stages. There is no particular time frame. A child's grief becomes a problem if it disrupts her normal development.

Here are some helpful resources on grief in children:

Debra Collins is a licensed marriage and family therapist and has worked in both primary and middle schools as a school counselor. She gives workshops to teachers and students and offers parenting classes in the San Francisco Bay Area. To learn more, visit her website.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.