Understanding Death and Grief - TeachersAndFamilies

Death and Grief

From the National Association
of School Psychologists


Developmental Differences in Understanding Death

It is important to recognize that all children are unique in their understanding of death and dying. This understanding depends on their developmental level, cognitive skills, personality characteristics, religious or spiritual beliefs, teachings by parents and significant others, input from the media, and previous experiences with death. Nonetheless, there are some general considerations that will be helpful in understanding how children and adolescents experience and deal with death.

· Infants and Toddlers: The youngest children may perceive that adults are sad, but have no real understanding of the meaning or significance of death. They will not be able to handle more than global statements, nor do they understand what they cannot see.

· Preschoolers: Young children may deny death as a formal event and may see death as reversible. They may interpret death as a separation, not a permanent condition. Preschool and even early elementary children may link certain events and magical thinking with the causes of death. For instance, they may tie some act of misbehavior to the subsequent death of a parent and believe they are to blame. It is important to talk with preschoolers in concrete, simple terms and reassure them that they did not cause the illness, accident, etc.

· Early Elementary School: Children at this age (approximately 5-9) start to comprehend the finality of death. They begin to understand that certain circumstances may result in death. They can understand that some illnesses or that planes crashing cause death. However, they may over-generalize inappropriately, particularly at ages 5-6. For example, "If jet planes didn't fly, then people wouldn't die." At this age, children perceive death as something that happens to others, not to oneself or one's family. Parents can help these children develop more realistic connections: many planes fly every day and land safely; doctors and medicines help cure most illnesses. Although children might not be able to understand the abstract concepts of death, they can understand that their loved one or friend is gone.

· Middle School: Children at this level have the cognitive understanding to comprehend death as a final event that results in the cessation of all bodily functions. They may not fully grasp the abstract concepts discussed by adults or on the TV news but are likely to be guided in their thinking by a concrete understanding of justice. Their first reaction to a sudden death may be, "It's not fair!" Young people at this age may experience a variety of feelings and emotions, and their expressions may include acting out or self-injurious behaviors as a means of coping with their anger, vengeance and despair.

· High School: Most teens will fully grasp the meaning of death in circumstances such as an automobile accident, illness and even the World Trade Center or Pentagon disasters. They may seek out friends and family for comfort or they may withdraw to deal with their grief. Teens (as well as some younger children) with a history of depression, suicidal behavior and chemical dependency are at particular risk for prolonged and serious grief reactions and may need more careful attention from home and school during these difficult times.


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Adapted from NASP Web site materials.
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