What children understand about death

When someone close to a child dies, it’s important to understand what they already know about death.

Although a child’s grief is individual, their understanding of death changes as they get older. We’ll be going through how the majority of children understand death at different ages, and how these tie into different stages of development. It’s important to remember that a child’s understanding of death may also be different if they have learning difficulties.

What children understand about death

Responding to loss

Although babies are often too young to understand what death is, they still respond to loss and experience grief. 

A baby up to six months old can experience feelings of separation and abandonment. They can become aware that someone is missing, which can make them feel anxious and fretful.

This experience can be heightened if the baby’s primary caregiver has died. A baby is able to identify who feeds them, changes and cuddles them. They’ll recognise that they’re no longer being looked after by the person who has died, and this can cause distress.

Similarly, if the baby’s primary caregiver is grieving, the baby can pick up on their feelings and experience this grief too.

Recognising loss

Although they might not fully recognice that someone has died, babies will recognise that they’re absent. This can be very upsetting – they may react with loud crying and angry tears. 

It is also common for babies this age to become withdrawn and lose interest in their toys and feeding. They will likely lose interest in interacting with others too.

At the older end of this developmental stage, bereaved toddlers actively look for the person who has died. If Granddad spent a lot of his time in his shed, a toddler might keep looking in the shed, hoping that they’ll find him there.

Limited cognitive ability

Between two to five, children don’t fully understand what ‘dead’ actually means, and that death is irreversible. 

A four year old child may be worried that, although Nanny is dead, she should have come home by now. It’s very common for young children to be told that their loved one has died, but expect to see them alive and well in the near future. 

Children this age may ask questions such as:

  • “Won’t Uncle Bob be lonely in the ground by himself?”
  • “Do you think we should put some sandwiches in Grandpa’s coffin in case he gets hungry?”
  • “What if Nan can’t breathe under all that earth?”
  • “Will Daddy be hurt if they burn him?”

Children at this development stage have limited cognitive perception. Because of this, they may show less of a reaction to the news of a death, especially when compared to an older child. In fact, they might go out to play after hearing such news.

Understanding abstract concepts

Children this age might also have difficulty with abstract concepts surrounding death. They might be confused by:

  • How one person can be in a grave and also be in heaven at the same time. 
  • If they are told that the person who has died is simply sleeping. This could make them afraid of falling asleep, or seeing anyone else asleep. They might also wait for them to wake up.
  • If they are told that the person who has died has gone on a long journey. This could make them insist on waiting for them to return.

Magical thinking

Bereaved children in this age group can believe in omnipotence or magical thinking. They think that their actions, inaction, words, behaviours or thoughts are directly responsible for their loved one’s death. 

It is very important that you explain to the bereaved child that the death was not in any way their fault or responsibility. A grieving child needs to be reassured that nothing they said, didn’t say, did or didn’t do caused the death. 

This form of thinking isn’t just experienced by children this age. Many bereaved children and young people of older ages can believe in magical thinking.

Children at this developmental stage have a wider understanding of death and what it means. 

They begin to realise that death is the end of a person’s life, and that the person who has died won’t return. By the age of seven, the average child accepts that all people, including themselves, will eventually die.

This wider understanding can increase a child’s anxieties about deaths of people who they are close too.

Sharing the facts

Children this age attend school. This means where they get information, and misinformation, from is much broader. Sources can include friends, classmates and others in their peer group. This includes information, and misinformation, around death. 

When supporting a bereaved child, it is therefore important that the following are explained appropriately:

  • The cause of loved one’s death
  • The funeral and burial process 
  • What happens to the body of someone who has died

Children will ask many questions. They may want to know intricate details about the death and decomposition of the body. Although this might feel uncomfortable to talk about, it is very important that children have these details explained to them clearly. This will help them understand what has happened.

Talking about feelings

At this developmental stage, children can empathise with and show compassion for people who have been bereaved. 

Children in this age group often copy the coping mechanisms they see in bereaved adults. They may try to disguise their emotions in an attempt to protect them. A bereaved child may feel they need permission to show their emotions and talk about their feelings.

It is very important to let them talk about their feelings.

Avoid saying things like “Come on be a big brave girl for mummy” or “Big boys don’t cry”. However well meant these may be, they can make children feel they need to hide their feelings. They may think what they are feeling is wrong. This can cause further complications as the bereaved child develops.

Find resources

Visit Hope Again, our website for children and young people and get resources for children struggling with grief.