Serving Western Wisconsin
Telling a Child that Someone has Died

Telling a Child that Someone has Died

by Chaplain Julia Rajtar

What do you tell a child after their mother or father, or a sibling has died?  Families struggle with thoughts such as: I’m not sure what to say, I don’t want to cause more pain,  I want to protect them from this pain so let’s spare them the rituals and such of death.  Protecting a child from the ensuing grief that comes with death is not helpful.  Children need the opportunity to say goodbye, share feelings and deal with emotions.   Adults caring for the child can provide support to the child in a developmentally appropriate fashion.  Children often benefit from active strategies through dramatic play and sharing memories through artwork.


As caring adults, we want to protect children from death.  Grief is challenging and difficult, yet most children seem to have the strength, resilience and capacity to not only deal with grief constructively but emerge as more empathic than peers who have not experienced a major loss (Davies 1999, Oltjenbruns 2001).   Remember, grief is as natural as the setting sun and includes a natural mix of emotions that cannot be cured.  As caregivers, we cannot cure the pain, but we can create the conditions that allow the bereaved to remember, grieve, heal and grow.


Below is a guide which offers information on the developmental considerations of children and provides some suggestions on how to support them.   With this insight, parents, family, friends or helpers will be guided in understanding the challenges faced by the grieving person and offer help that can be meaningful.



Click here for a PDF with the Table of Reactions information shown below

Birth – 3 Years:  Cognitively

  • Meaning or permanency of death
  • Concept of time

Physical Reactions

  • Very aware of differences in environment and
    “gone-ness” of loved one
  • Often exhibit physical symptoms of grief (sleep, eating, bowel changes)
  • Difficult to soothe

Supporting Birth – 3 Year Olds

  • Maintain routines
  • Choose familiar and supportive caregivers
  • Assign a support person during funeral/ritual
  • Affection
  • Acknowledge feelings by naming
    • Around 2 ½ yrs children can grieve through play to express grief



Children 3-5 Years: Cognitively

  • Still considered Pre-conceptual or Preoperational
    • See death as reversable – so parents have to retell the story of death
  • Through magical thinking- may assume responsibility for death
  • Don’t have the language to articulate feelings (use art, play, music)

Physical Reactions

  • Often experience separation anxiety
  • May experience physical symptoms (headaches, stomach aches)
  • May regress to earlier behavior
  • May quickly shift from grieving to “normal play”

Supporting 3-5 Year Olds

  • Maintain routine
  • Reinforce that tears that they see are natural
  • Assure that their needs will still be met
  • Offer play with themes of death, while providing guidance



Children 6-9 Years: Cognitive

  • Begin to understand concept of illness/ death as they move forward, concrete operational thinking
  • Tend to be aware of irreversibility and universality
  • May still engage in magical thinking
  • Tend to see death as something physical
  • Worry that others will die
  • May wish that they could die to re-join deceased

Supporting 6-9 Year Olds

  • Listen to questions carefully, what information is the child seeking?
  • Encourage child to answer questions
  • Increase physical activity and stress reducing behaviors
  • Work on identifying and talking about feelings (Create a marble jar, every time the name of deceased is mentioned, have them place a marble in the jar. Sometimes children don’t talk about deceased because they don’t want the adult to hurt more.  After the jar is full, go do something fun that the deceased might have done.  This activity came from Molly Tomony, LPC, ATR-BC)



Children 9-12 Years: Cognitive


  • Concrete logical operational thinking
  • Problem-focused coping skills
  • Can articulate feelings, express grief sporadically
  • Verbalize needs
  • Find meaning in their loss


Supporting 9-12 Year Olds


  • Provide accurate information
  • Encourage exploration of own beliefs/thoughts
  • Encourage physical outlets
  • Rituals/inclusion



Adolescence: Cognitive


  • Begin shift from concrete operational thinking-(formal/logical) to abstract/reflective
  • Numerous psychosocial and emotional tasks (separating from parents, joining peer groups, forgiving identity, risk taking behaviors, believe they are immortal)
  • Begin to make future goals, commitments to others
  • Time of questioning, arguing, debating, developing moral awareness
  • Grief is regressive(they want to be independent yet they want to curl up with mom) and can interfere with tasks of separation


Supporting Adolescence


  • Unconditional positive regard, honesty, empathy, build trust
  • Verbal and non-verbal avenues for expression (music, writing, art, exercise)
  • Correct distorted information about loss that may lead to guilt, anger (sometimes hurtful or angry things are said before the person died. Give adolescence an opportunity to talk about it)
  • Rehearse adaptive ways to cope
  • Advocate and educate to create a support network

Source:  Children Coping with Grief and Loss:  Creative Interventions, Molly Tomony LPC, ATR-BC, UW Madison Grief Certificate Program, 2017.



Allina Health Grief Resources – resources for adults, children, teens.


Children Coping with Grief and Loss:  Creative Interventions, presentation by Molly Tomony LPC, ATR-BC, for Grief Certificate Program, UW Madison Grief Certificate Program, UW Madison Extension, 2017.


Life Span Issues and Loss, Grief and Mourning: Childhood and Adolescence, Kevin Ann Oltjenbruns, in the Handbook of Thanatology, 2nd Edition, Meagher, David K, and Balk, David E, Editors, Association for Death Education and Counseling, Routledge, New York, New York, 2013.

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