Children’s responses to death

Just like adults, children respond to a death in different ways. As a caring adult in their life, it’s helpful for you to recognise that they may not process experiences the same way that you do.

When it comes to the deep mysteries of life and death, regardless of your particular faith tradition or personal philosophy, it is healthy to acknowledge that children have ‘spiritual’ life – a sense of something that connects life and gives purpose.

Research among even quite young children supports the idea that different children have different ways of processing experiences and ideas. One Canadian researcher, Dave Csinos, calls these ‘spiritual styles’.

Some children are talkers – and words help them get a handle on what’s happening. They may want to talk to you, or will be open to your words of help and comfort, or they may appreciate reading or hearing stories that deal with the topic of death.

Some children will be explicitly emotional. They will need to cry, but they may also exhibit other emotions – perhaps outbursts of anger, or sullenness or even humour. Whatever the emotions your child goes through, show them that expressing these emotions is welcome and accepted.

Other children need action, and doing something constructive – such as going for a walk, building something, making a batch of cookies to take to a friend or relative, or if there is a funeral helping to straighten the chapel or fold the orders of service – will give them space to work through the experience of death that has occurred. Perhaps they won’t say anything directly about what has happened, but participating will bring sense and comfort to them.

Still other children will need and perhaps want to create symbols which embody their feelings. Making cards, assembling a posy of flowers and placing them on a grave or somewhere else significant, choosing a particular item as a momento, or even buying something small and inexpensive that they can carry with them as they process their grief will be important. My young friend Zoe designed and made a gravestone for her guinea pig – her symbolic way of showing her sadness and love for Heidi.

These four ‘styles’ may also help us as adults also to consider how we grieve, how we show our love and hope in the face of death, as well as open our eyes to see what our children may need in making sense of the mysteries of life and death.

Beth Barnett

Beth is currently undertaking doctoral studies in the area of New Testament examining the constructs of maturity in the letters of Paul. She has held pastoral roles in Baptist and Anglican churches and been a long-term volunteer in the missions of Scripture Union, for whom she is a freelance resource writer and trainer. She teaches units in Children and Families Ministry and Biblical Studies at Stirling College, as well as guest lectures in other Melbourne, Australia, colleges. Internationally, she is a writer and facilitator in the Child Theology Movement.