Between ages three and six, children do not understand the finality of death. During this stage of development children believe that death is temporary and reversible. This is often reinforced as many characters in cartoons die and come back to life.
Since preschoolers are concrete thinkers, they are very literal. Using language like “fell asleep”, “traveled to the great beyond” or “passed away” can confuse a child and may even create fears related to falling asleep or going on long trips. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends telling a child that the person had died and “that means we will no longer be able to see her.”
When children reach ages 4 to 7, they continue to believe death is temporary and reversible. At this stage of development children may also believe that their actions, words, thoughts or wishes caused a person to die. This belief often comes from the thought that the world revolves around them and they can control things around them, according to a publication by VITAS Healthcare. Reassuring a child that he is not responsible for the love one’s death and helping him to identify and talk about his feelings can help him to feel safe and in control.
Children facing the death of a loved one may also experience regression. A potty trained child may begin to have accidents or a former thumb sucker may begin to suck her thumb again. Children may also ask lots of questions about death and dying, like “how do dead people eat” or express their grief through play.
Since children get their cues from adults, it’s important to remember that children will be affected by the emotions, expressions and actions of those around him. Modeling healthy coping skills will help to offer support to children facing the death of a family member.
Nannies can also help children to cope by reading age-appropriate books about death and dying to them, speaking in concrete terms and reassuring them they are safe. Nannies can also reassure children that not everyone who gets sick dies.