End of Life
How Children Understand Death
A child’s understanding of death changes with development. Though your child is an individual who may be ahead of or behind his peers, the guidelines below outline what children at different ages are likely to understand about death.
• Infants and toddlers have no concept of death so cannot be prepared in advance for the loss of a parent. After death occurs, a toddler may look in the places associated with the loved parent for many weeks.
• Preschool-age children are curious about death. They imagine it is reversible, and so think a parent could be dead and later return. Because they have magical thinking at this age, it is important to make sure that the child does not feel responsible for a parent’s illness or death.
• Elementary school–age children understand that death is permanent. They may want to know facts about what happens when organs stop working or why this process cannot be changed by medicine or technology. Many children in this age group imagine they will one day find the cure for their parent’s illness.
• Adolescents have the capacity to understand death in the same ways that adults do. The ability to imagine a future without a beloved parent often leads teens to feel very sad imagining what it will be like not to have a parent at graduation, the prom, or their wedding.
For all children, especially the youngest ones, getting to know the parent who died will continue to occur by piecing together the pictures and writings of the parent and the loving remembrances of them as told by family and friends.
© 2013 Marjorie E. Korff PACT Program/PACT Boston • • Back to top