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Helping your school-age child cope with death


While at home or at St. Jude, your child may experience the death of someone close to him. This person could be a friend or a family member. The death could be the result of a serious illness or even an accident. No matter what the cause, you may want support in helping your child through this loss.

Many different staff members can help your child deal with the death of a friend or family member. A certified child life specialist is one of the team members who will work closely with your family. This staff member can help your child understand death and teach him ways to cope with the loss. Child life specialists are here to work with your child and his brothers and sisters at any time during your stay. They also can support you in talking with your child about death. When needed, Child Life can send you resource materials about grief and bereavement that fit your child’s age. If you are at home and feel that your child needs more support, please call on local support services such as a grief counselor, chaplain, social worker, or psychologist.

The death of a loved one can be a very stressful event for you and your child. You may think, “How can I help him understand and cope when I am having trouble myself?” The St. Jude staff offers this information to guide you in helping your school-age child deal with the death of someone close to him.

Understanding death

Most school-age children have begun to understand what death means. They also may have started asking harder questions, such as “Why?”

Your school-age child may wonder about the physical changes of the dead person’s body. He might ask to view or even touch the body.

Because school-age children are aware that they will die one day, your child may become fearful of sleep, sickness, or anything else that he feels could lead to his own death.

Your child may also feel guilt and regret for things he wishes that he would have said or done before the special person died.

How to say it

  • Use concrete words such as “dead” and clear wording, like “her body stopped working.”
  • Avoid phrases such as “passed away,” “gone to sleep,” or “taken to a better place.” They are hard for a child to understand.
  • Remember to include your religious beliefs when you discuss death with your school-age child. However, avoid saying that God “took someone to be with him.” Your child may begin to fear that God will take him away, too.

Possible questions

Your child might have many questions about death. Be sure to answer those questions honestly, using simple words that he can understand. Also, remember that it is OK if you do not have all the answers.

Here are some questions your school-age child might ask when a family member or friend has died. We also offer some possible answers.

Is death like going to sleep?

Death is different from sleeping. When you are sleeping, your body still works. You still breathe, your heart beats, and your body can still move. When a person dies, his body stops working.

Keep in mind: Children who are told that death is like sleeping may develop fears of going to sleep and not waking up.

Why did he die?

If an illness caused the death, explain that the person’s body could not fight the illness any longer. The doctors and nurses did everything they could do, but his body stopped working. It will help your child to have a basic understanding of the illness. He needs to know the difference between the illness the person died from versus a cold or the flu.

If the person died of cancer and your child has cancer, make sure your child understands that there are many different kinds of cancer. Some are harder to cure than others. If the person died of the same disease that your child has, let him know that each body is unique, and some people respond better to treatment than others.

If an accident caused the death, explain that the person was hurt so badly that his body stopped working. Also explain that when most people get hurt, they can get better and live a long time.

Will I die? Will you die?

Your child might need to feel reassured and secure. Let him know that although everyone dies at some point, most people live for a long time. Children also need to know who will take care of them if a parent or guardian dies.

Does it hurt to die?

Reassure your child that there are medicines that help to take away pain. Also, let your child know that the doctors and nurses did everything they could to make sure the special person hurt as little as possible.

Common reactions

Every child responds to death in his own way. These are some of the most common reactions for school-aged children:

  • Anxiety
  • Crying
  • Denial
  • Guilt
  • Withdrawal
  • Anger
  • Drop in grades
  • Regressing (acting younger than his age)
  • Daydreaming or not paying attention
  • Fear of his own death or the death of a caregiver
  • Physical responses, such as stomach aches, headaches, etc.

Ways to help

  • Model healthy grieving. It is OK for your child to see you cry. Encourage your child to express his feelings.
  • Tell your child it is OK to feel sad, angry, and scared about death. It will help him to know that everyone has a mix of strong feelings when someone close to them dies.
  • If your child has false ideas about death, help him understand the truth.
  • Give your child a chance to tell the special person things that he may have wanted to say. (Examples: Place a letter in the casket, visit the gravesite after the funeral day, release a balloon)
  • Allow your child to release energy through physical activities (outdoor play, sports, etc).
  • Set limits for aggressive behavior. However, know that your child might act younger than his age while he is trying to cope with this death.
  • Encourage your child to write stories, poems, or music about his feelings or about the person who has died.
  • Read books about death and loss that fit your child’s age. You can find these books at your local library or bookstore. Some titles that may be helpful for your school-age child are:
    • "When Someone Very Special Dies" by Marge Heegaard
    • "I Know I Made It Happen: A Gentle Book About Feelings" by Lynn Bennett Blackburn
    • "The Empty Space: A Child’s Guide Through Grief" by Roberta Temes, PhD
    • "Lost and Found: Remembering a Sister" by Ellen Yeomans
    • "Since My Brother Died" by Marisol Munoz-Kiehne
    • "Where Do Balloons Go? An Uplifting Mystery" by Jamie Lee Curtis and Laura Cornell
    • "The Next Place" by Warren Hanson
  • You may find these books helpful when preparing your child for a death:
    • "Preparing the Children: Information and Ideas for Families Facing Terminal Illness" by Kathy Nussbaum
    • "Living the Dying Process: A Guide for Caregivers" by Jody Gyulay

If you have concerns about how well your child is adjusting to the death of someone close to him, please call the Child Life department at (901) 595-3020. If you are inside the hospital, dial 3020. If you are outside the Memphis area, call toll-free 1-866-2STJUDE (1-866-278-5833), extension 3020.

This document is not intended to take the place of the care and attention of your personal physician or other professional medical services. Our aim is to promote active participation in your care and treatment by providing information and education. Questions about individual health concerns or specific treatment options should be discussed with your physician.

St. Jude complies with health care-related federal civil rights laws and does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, disability, or sex.

ATTENTION: If you speak another language, assistance services, free of charge, are available to you. Call 1-866-278-5833 (TTY: 1-901-595-1040).

ATENCIÓN: si habla español, tiene a su disposición servicios gratuitos de asistencia lingüística. Llame al 1-866-278-5833 (TTY: 1-901-595-1040).

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