Talking to Your Child
About the Loss of a Loved One

Part 3: Overcoming the Taboos

J.W. Worden, Ph.D.


Death is a taboo subject, and even those who hold strong beliefs may avoid talking about it. Once death was an integral part of family life. People died at home, surrounded by loved ones. Adults and children experienced death together, mourned together, and comforted each other.

Today death is lonelier. Most people die in hospitals and nursing homes where they receive the extensive nursing and medical care they need. Their loved ones have less opportunity to be with them and often miss sharing their last moments of life. The living have become isolated from the dying; consequently, death has taken on added mystery and, for some, added fear.

Many people are beginning to recognize that treating death as a taboo does a disservice to both the dying and the living, adding to loneliness, anxiety, and stress for all. Efforts are underway to increase knowledge and communication about death as a means of overcoming the taboo. Scientists are studying the dying to help the living better understand how dying individuals experience their approaching deaths.

Children's perceptions also are being studied for a better understanding of how they think about death. Researchers have found that two factors seem to influence children's conception of death - their developmental stages and their experiences [their environments, ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds, and their personal way of seeing things].

Developmental Stages

Studies show that children go through a series of stages in their understanding of death. For example, preschool children usually see death as reversible, temporary, and impersonal. Watching cartoon characters on television miraculously rise up whole again after having been crushed or blown apart tends to reinforce this notion.

Between the ages of five and nine, most children are beginning to realize that death is final and that all living things die, but still they do not see death as personal. They harbor the idea that somehow they can escape through their own ingenuity and efforts. During this stage, children also tend to personify death. They may associate death with a skeleton or the angel of death, and some children have nightmares about them.

From nine or ten through adolescence, children begin to comprehend fully that death is irreversible, that all living things die, and that they too will die some day. Some begin to work on developing philosophical views of life and death. Teenagers, especially, often become intrigued with seeking the meaning of life. Some youngsters react to their fear of death by taking unnecessary chances with their lives. In confronting death, they are trying to overcome their fears by confirming their "control" over mortality.

The Individual Experience

While it can be helpful to know that children go through a series of stages in the way they perceive death, it is important to remember that, as in all growth processes, children develop at individual rates. It is equally important to keep in mind that all children experience life uniquely and have their own personal ways of expressing and handling feelings. Some children ask questions about death as early as three years of age. Others may outwardly appear to be unconcerned about the death of a grandparent, but may react strongly to the death of a pet. Some may never mention death, but act out their fantasies in their play; they may pretend that a toy or pet is dying and express their feelings and thoughts in their make-believe game, or they may play "death games" with their friends, taking turns dying or developing elaborate funeral rituals.

No matter how children cope with death or express their feelings, they need sympathetic and nonjudgmental responses from adults. Careful listening and watching are important ways to learn how to respond appropriately to a child's needs.

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 29 Mar 2015
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