Helping Children Cope with Death

By Dr. Michael Oberschneider, Ashburn Psychological & Psychiatric Services

Dear Dr. Mike,

My brother just passed away at a very young age. My children were attached to their uncle, and while it’s difficult for me, I have no idea how hard it is for my young children, who are only 6 and 9.

They understand the situation and are sad. My 6-year-old has many questions I answer, while my 9-year-old has said nothing and doesn’t want to discuss it. They aren’t acting much differently; they don’t cry and seem happy unless they talk about my brother. I’m unsure how to handle their pain or how it affects them.

Dear Concerned Parent,

As adults, we know that tragedies are unavoidable and will occur — the death of family members (unexpected or expected), divorces, and other disasters will happen. While we all process loss differently, the death of a loved one can be tough on young children.

At 6- and 9-year-olds, your children have a basic understanding of death and its finality. However, developmentally, children at 6 and 9 are still black and white in their thinking, and death is more of a gray topic — e.g., how we feel about it, putting it into context, and understanding our mortality. Thus, it can be difficult for children at these ages to fully process the topic of death intellectually and emotionally. When a loved one passes, it is not uncommon for children at these ages to defend against their feelings or have difficulty expressing them verbally.

Your children are handling their loss well based on what you have written. As a mother, you might now begin to broach the topic of their uncle less directly and positively.

By bringing up your feelings about your brother, you could invite your children, in parallel, to discuss their feelings in a less direct and perhaps more comfortable way. For example, telling your children that you miss their uncle or recounting a meaningful tradition or event involving their uncle in their presence will give them a little emotional cushioning as they continue to make sense of what happened.

You write that your brother passed away at a very young age, but you do not relay the circumstances of his passing — whether his death was immediate and unexpected or perhaps he suffered from a long-term illness. If your children were unprepared for his passing, that could complicate things for them.

I recommend that you continue to monitor your children closely during this time and adjust yourself as a parent as needed. Suppose you notice significant changes in either child’s functioning or behavior. If any other identifiable triggers cannot be explained, you should consider scheduling a consultation with a child psychologist who can formally assess the situation and your child’s needs.

And remember to take care of yourself. You are right to worry about your children here, but your worry could become excessive or displaced if you do not grieve your loss fully. Necessary Losses, by Judith Viorst, is an excellent book on loss that may be helpful to you.