Birth to Age 3

Children view death as a loss, separation or abandonment. Infants/toddlers sense where there is sadness/anxiety around them.

• Impacted by the response of caregivers and significant adults around them

• May exhibit changes in sleeping, eating and mood, i.e. increased clinging, decreased appetite, more irritable

• Depend on nonverbal communications and consistent nurturing

How to Help

• Keep normal routines

• Provide consistent nurturing by parent or consistent caregivers


Ages 3 to 6

Children view death as reversible and temporary and believe that people who die will come back.

• May believe in magical thinking: their thoughts/actions may have caused the death, death is punishment for

doing something bad

• May interpret words literally, i.e. my dad died from a stomachache and I have one, maybe I will die too

• Still impacted by emotions of others around them

• Abstract concepts, such as heaven, may be difficult to understand

• May revert to an earlier stage of development or seem unaffected by the death

• May exhibit changes in sleeping, eating, mood and behavior

• May have difficulty separating from parents or other caregivers

• May escape through play

 How to Help

• Be honest, use concrete terms to describe death, i.e. dead people no longer breathe, go to the bathroom or grow

• Avoid words such as sleeping, resting, lost, passed away or taking a trip

• Keep normal routine when possible

• Repeat simple, honest explanations when asked for information

• Use books on death and loss to aid understanding

• Provide opportunities to play, draw, and express feelings

• Offer reassurance that nothing the child did, said, or thought caused the death to happen


Ages 6 to 9

Children begin to view death as final.

• Increased curiosity about illness, death and how it affects the body

• Worries about how the dead person eats, sleeps, etc.

• May think that death is something that takes people away or is contagious

• May blame self for death and experience guilt feelings

• Views death as accidental or something that happens to old people, but not them

• May exhibit changes in behavior, i.e. increased aggression or physical symptoms

• May have difficulty separating from family members or caregivers

• May have difficulty expressing feelings verbally

How to Help

• Be honest, use concrete terms to describe death such as dead or has died

• Identify specific fears or misconceptions (i.e. they can't catch the disease) and address potential guilt feelings (i.e. nothing they did caused the death)

• Provide opportunities to play, draw and journal

• Create opportunities to share positive memories about the dead person

• Maintain daily routine when possible, i.e. school