By heatherericksonauthor.comThe Erickson Family

How Kids Understand Death

Understand Death

I’m doing double duty this month during the A to Z Blogging Challenge. Here at Facing Cancer with Grace, I will focus on caregiving. I’ll also be doing the challenge at Heather Erickson Author/Writer/Speaker, where I will share ways to increase your creativity. I hope you’ll visit me at both sites. While you’re here, sign up for my email list. Today’s post is K for How Kids Understand Death. This post is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Facing Cancer as a Parent: Helping your Child Cope with Your Cancer.

In a recent post, we looked at Grief in Children from the viewpoint that grieving begins with a loss. It’s important to understand death isn’t the only thing reason we grieve. Unfortunately, for many families, the cancer journey does end in death. What you see in your child as they cope with death will depend largely on their age and how they understand death.

Infants, up to 2 years old

Infants won’t understand death at all, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t affected by it. They know that the parent they loved is no longer there. You may even see an older infant looking for their “missing” parent. Even more than the absence of their parent, infants are affected by the sadness of their surviving parent.

What you can expect to see from your child as they cope with death as an infant up to 2 years old:

  • increased crying
  • irritability
  • changes in sleeping habits.
  • changes in eating habits

Preschool-age children (3 to 6 years)

Children ages 3-6 are curious about death, but they don’t understand death as a permanent condition. It’s common for them to think that someone who’s died is in a state similar to sleep. They may believe it’s reversible and that their parent will wake up. They might even think that if they’re good enough, they can make the person who died come back.

Children tend to center the death (like everything else) on themselves. If they have ever wished their parent would go away or had been “bad,” they may feel guilty and responsible for their parent’s death. It’s very difficult for children this age to put their feelings into words.

As you would expect, children who lose a parent are apt to worry about who will take care of them. They may question whether their other family members are safe, or if one day, they too will die, leaving the child behind. And, like children younger than them, they’re very affected by the sadness of surviving family members.

What you can expect to see from your child as they cope with death as a preschooler:

  • symptoms of regression
  • bed-wetting
  • thumb-sucking
  • acting out in aggression
  • irritability
  • difficulty sleeping

Our Story

I met, fell in love with, and married Dan when my daughters were young. before that, I was married to my children’s biological father. He left us, After that, for weeks, one of my daughters kept saying he had been shot. No matter what I said to try to convince her otherwise, she thought he had died. I took them to our pastor who began to talk to them and asked them questions. He asked her why she thought that he was dead. She said, “It’s like in Narnia. The dad went to war and was shot. The children were sad and the mom cried all the time.” My daughters didn’t understand what divorce was but they had seen in a movie, something that resonated with how they were feeling. They drew their own conclusions from that. This taught me a big lesson about children’s perceptions. This taught me a big lesson about children’s perceptions.

Be aware that your young child may not understand death accurately. Asking gentle questions can be very illuminating.

School-age children (6 to 12 years)

By the time your child reaches the ages of 6-12, they understand death is final. As they get older, they’ll understand death is unavoidable and happens to everyone at some point. Death itself is often perceived by children this age, symbolically, such as a skeleton, the Grim Reaper, or a more religious manifestation, such as an angel or spirit. Children this age will still struggle to talk about their feelings.

They will experience many emotions including guilt and shame, since they may worry that they’re to blame for their loved one’s death. They may also feel anger and sadness. And, most likely, they’ll experience anxiety and fear about their future and even their own death. They’re still likely to worry about who will take care of them. This can bring about feelings of insecurity, clingy behavior.

Children this age are often interested in the specific details of death and what happens to the body after death. This can even be seen when a pet dies. Far from being gruesome, the child may want to see the dead pet and know more clearly what has happened. While adults may feel uncomfortable with this, it’s quite natural, and a part of coming to terms with the death. For this reason, you shouldn’t be overly concerned if the child wants to see or touch their deceased parent.

What you can expect to see from your child as they cope with death as a school-aged child, 6-12 years old:

  • symptoms that their younger counterparts experience
  • trouble in school
  • withdrawal from friends and/or family

Our Story

When our kids were younger, they had a pet betta fish. After about 6 months, Huckleberry did what all fish eventually do, and died. I was concerned that it would upset the kids, so I tossed the fish into the brush outside of our home.

Our daughter became frantic at seeing the empty fishbowl. She cried and cried, demanding to see her little Huckleberry. Finally, I relented and told her where he was. She rushed out in her bare feet, searching through the leaves and branches. Finally, she found him. She looked at him for a few minutes in silence and then returned as calm as could be. She wiped her eyes and returned to playing.

Teenagers (13 to 18 years)

While most teenagers understand death in like adults do, when it comes to death, they don’t behave like an adult. They’ll experience a range of emotions, and don’t have the depth of experience or the coping skills needed to handle them. Teens don’t tend to ask for help. Instead, you’ll need to recognize that they’re struggling.

Signs to watch for in your child as they cope with death as a teenager, include:

  • Lashing out at family members or friends.
  • Reckless and/or impulsive behavior
  • Substance use/abuse
  • Promiscuity.
  • Questioning God, their faith, and/or their understanding of the world
  • Withdrawing from the family to be alone
  • Spending more time with friends (not always a bad thing, but can be an indicator that they are having difficulty dealing with what’s happening)

Because they want to feel independent, teens sometimes want to emotionally and physically separate from their family. They may not be receptive to support from adult family members. It can be helpful to enlist the help of other adults who can help identify when a problem is occurring. Communicate regularly with their teachers, coaches, and pastors who can help during this time.

College Age

Despite being considered legal adults, college-aged children are still developing emotionally. Their brain isn’t fully formed until they are 25 years old. To make matters even more complicated, these are the years when many of them are in college or starting their career. Whether they live on campus, commute, or have decided to work full time, they have a lot that they are juggling.

Thankfully, many colleges have academic and crisis counselors on staff. Students should contact them early on to see what options they have regarding their classes, should a crisis such as the death of a parent, arise. Some schools even offer tuition insurance for a medical crisis. Check with the school to find out details, including any potential issues with their scholarships. Make sure any insurance you purchase will cover any needed time off from school for your child as they cope with death.

Our daughter, Summer

Summer and Dan August 2016
Photo by Jim Bovin

Our oldest daughter, Summer had already completed 2 years of college by the time she was 18 through a

program the State of Minnesota has known as Post Secondary Options (PSEO). She then transferred to the University of St. Thomas where she would get her 4-year degree.

We knew that during her time there, it was likely her dad would die. How would she cope with that? It’s one thing to deal with the pressures of college when you have a sick parent. It’s a whole other matter to try to focus on an intensive time of studies when your parent dies.

Summer spoke with her academic counselor as well as the student counselor who deals with issues such as grief. She began to assemble her support system at school.

School can be a welcome escape for your child as they cope with death. Or, it can add to the overwhelming feelings they may be experiencing. How your child deals with the loss of a parent will be as individual as he or she is.

Helping your child cope with and understand death

It’s common for surviving parents, family members and friends to worry about how their grief will affect the kids. They worry that their children will be damaged by their own intense feelings about the loss. Because of this, some adults will try to hide their emotions while around children. This is unnecessary and can be harmful in the long run—for everyone.

Children look for cues from adults for how to react to what’s happening around them. There’s nothing wrong with crying or other expressions of intense feelings after a loved one’s death. These are normal expressions of how people feel when they lose someone important to them.

The way you, and others, react to your child as they cope with death through the mourning process, will send a message to them, whether you intend to or not. For example. Telling a child not to cry, can cause them to feel like their feelings are wrong. This denies them the opportunity to work through the variety of emotions they are feeling, related to the loss.

Don’t try to hide your feelings

If family members and friends try too hard to hide their feelings, the child may think it’s wrong to be open about their own feelings. Instead of being able to share their feelings and get the needed support, the child keeps it inside and doubts the validity of their feelings.

Genuine feelings of sadness, tears, and anger are normal reactions for anyone who’s grieving. While acting hysterical may frighten a child, as long as their security needs are being met, seeing your grief being expressed won’t damage them.

In the same way, telling them that they should be more upset can cause him or her to feel guilty. It implies they are a bad person for not responding to the loss “appropriately.” Sometimes, outward displays of grief are delayed, or even suppressed due to mixed signals they’ve gotten in the past about whether or not it’s okay to cry. It’s important that your children understand death is a painful loss and it’s okay to respond to it in a way that feels authentic.


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In 2012 doctors diagnosed my husband, Dan, with stage IV lung cancer. Since then, our family has been learning what it means to face cancer. I’ve focused my writing and speaking on helping cancer patients and their families advocate for themselves and live life to the fullest, in spite of their illness. My goal is to help people face cancer with grace.

My book Facing Cancer as a Friend: How to Support Someone Who Has Cancer, is available on

Also, check out Facing Cancer as a Parent: Helping Your Children Cope with Your Cancer.

Also, put your memories into words with The Memory Maker’s Journal.

I also blog at Heather Erickson Author/Writer/Speaker


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4 comments on “How Kids Understand Death

That’s a surprise–about Huckleberry. I didn’t expect that. Kids do have their own way to process these horrible stuff.


Hi Jacqui, My kids still surprise me nearly every day. And most of the time the surprises are good. 😉

When my brother died this past January, my 6 yr old nephew said he was going to punch God in the face. It was cute, but also sad.

~Patricia Lynne aka Patricia Josephine~
My A to Z’s of Dining with IC
Patricia Lynne, Indie Author


Hi Patricia, It’s difficult to sort out that level of loss as an adult. For a child, it’s unfathomable. Yet, somehow they do. I’m always amazed at this, the resilience of children. I’m so sorry that your nephew is going through this, and for your loss as well.

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