How Children Deal With The Experience Of Death

As adults and parents, our highest priorities are our kids. We attempt to protect our children at all times and protecting them from death’s reality is tempting, but to do so may create more distress and harm than may be the case if we play it straight.

Like adults, kids need to be supported when exposed to the reality of death. Our children experience the same feelings that we do at these times. Sorrow, (extreme sorrow if the deceased was a relative or close friend) fear, anxiety and a host of even deeper feelings if the event was traumatic, are all genuine experiences at this time.


Understanding is a key element of support. As adults, we need to place ourselves in our children’s shoes. We need to feel like a child again. We need to understand what their thought processes might be. Different age groups will experience the feelings associated with death, in different ways to adults. We need to come from a place of understanding. A child’s concept of death will depend greatly on age, gender life experience and ethnic upbringing.

Some children are cognitively more developed that other children their own age and so experience and outlook regarding the event, even between siblings, may be (and almost certainly will be) different. Younger children do not have a concept of the finality of death. My nephew often spoke to his deceased aunt and often asked us when she would be returning. To a younger child the event of death may be less upsetting and simply treated as a matter of fact.

Where Have They Gone?

There is at times, a struggle to understand where the deceased has gone, (this can be a difficulty for adults too, caught up in their religious beliefs – but that is another story). ‘When will she wake up?’ Is a question that is often asked. Children’s questions come from genuine enquiry and usually do not have the grief attached at the time of questioning. Children are much more genuine that adults as they feel no requirement to protect their ego. Innocent questions should be answered with the same honesty as they were put and not confused with the manipulation of truth, which adults sometimes confuse with genuine truth. Grey areas should be avoided.

Truth begets truth.

Children are true solipsists. They believe that they are the centre of the universe and the cause of all things that occur and so it may be the case that some children will believe the death of a friend or loved one, is somehow, their fault. Adults need to be aware of cases of anxiousness, not totally connected to the event as such feelings may be a child’s guilt. Anxiousness may also extend to real life events such as sleep and its link to death. Am I (are you) going to wake up again? Why doesn’t aunty wake up? The consequences of death are not readily apparent to the younger child and its best left at that and not press the point home about the finality of the event, after all, at an early age, the universe is a magical place & anything could, can & will happen.

Pre Teens

An older child (five or six to pre-teen) has at least some concept of death and its finality. Of course, death will never occur to them. The older child likes to maintain a “contact” with the deceased and will often believe that they are still present in some form or another. Whether this is solely a coping mechanism or a genuine stage of maturity, is debateable, but their understanding is processed according to life experience and ethnicity. Sometimes behaviour regresses to an earlier age, depending on the child’s maturity or the closeness of the deceased. Physical symptoms are sometimes reported and sleep patterns may be affected.


Teenagers often experience deep grief, which is accompanied by the same anxiety, anger and guilt that most of us feel at these times. Many teenagers (& adults) feel a sense of longing and emotionally wish that opportunities had not been passed by. Such thoughts are mixed with shock and sadness and mixed with the anger and frustration at the inability to fully express their grief, often times leads to aggression and periods of isolation.

No matter what the symptoms, children need to be acknowledged, just as adults require and in the same way as in any counselling situation, children need to be allowed to talk and to be listened to. Nothing said by them is silly or stupid as such a reaction to their questions or stories would be disastrous.
Children need to be told the truth in an empathetic manner. Explanations should suit the child’s development and not where the parent or adult would like them to be psychologically, but where they are in that maturation process of life.

Their questions should be answered with honesty and clarity
Allow them time to process the information, with time to reflect using photographs, recordings etc.
Children need to be acknowledged.

Above all be honest and have the ability to express your own feelings.

Its important to understand the child’s feelings and to realise that older children will experience feelings to a greater degree than the younger ones.

Talk to the child and answer their questions with honesty.
Let the child know that above all, he/she is loved.

Love is the greatest gift we can give and the greatest fear is that we will lose love at some stage.

Make the child feel secure.

John A Allan©

Author's Bio: 

John Allan is a Counsellor and certified Life Coach. He is the author of several books, the latest of which is called Spirit & The Theory Of Radiant Consciousness and is the basis of John's series of workshops for people who want understanding around their behaviour. His Life Coaching/counselling blog can be found at John has almost two deacdes of experience in supporting people with cancer and has a blog at