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Helping Children Understand Death

When someone dies, it’s often hard to process, but it can be especially hard to explain death to children. People sometimes try to avoid talking about it or use euphemisms to soften the blow, but this is a mistake. To help children understand death, you should speak to them simply and truthfully, taking into consideration their age and maturity level.

  • Be aware that children grieve differently than adults. A child may seem sad one minute and then run off to play the next. This doesn’t mean the sadness is any less real. It’s just that prolonged grieving is sometimes too intense for them.
  • Different ages require different approaches. Preschoolers often struggle with the fact that death is permanent. Kids between 5 and 9 years of age may understand the finality of death, but may still have “magical thinking” and believe that they can escape death. On the other hand, they may be frightened and even have nightmares. By about age 10, children have a better understanding of what death means.
  • Speak simply, and avoid euphemisms. Saying “lost” or “gone to a better place” or “sleeping” can confuse and frighten a child. He or she may be afraid to go to sleep or wonder why a loved one would choose to go to another place and never return. It’s better to simply tell the child that the person has died, and then answer their questions in simple terms. Be patient if there are a lot of questions, or if your child asks the same question repeatedly.
  • Make sure to listen. Let your child talk about the person who has died, sharing memories and expressing emotions. It’s important for anyone who has experienced a loss to be able to talk about it. This is no less true for children.
  • Explain the funeral ahead of time. Children need to know what to expect and what is expected of them. Never pressure a child to attend a funeral, but allow it if the child wants to go. If the person who has died is a close relative, it may be appropriate to include the child in some of the decision making for the memorial, or find some way for children in the family to participate in the service. You might talk to the funeral director to get some ideas.
  • Give the child something to do. It’s helpful to guide children into activities that help them express and process grief. Encourage the child to write notes or draw pictures of their loved one and place them in a memory box, write in a journal, or look at photos together that remind you of happy times with the loved one.
  • Help your child remember. Don’t stop telling stories about the person who has died. Set aside time on special days to remember your loved one, and find ways on ordinary days to incorporate memories of them into your life. Play Grandma’s favorite music, make Grandpa’s famous chili, talk about how much the person loved boating, dancing or whatever it was that brought joy. Part of the healing process is finding a way to honor memories, keeping the person alive in your heart.

At Mountain View, we are committed to helping people heal after a loss. In addition to helping you plan a life-honoring memorial service, we have a grief support team that can be there for you and your child during this difficult time. Call us at (253) 205-8672 to learn more.

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