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Understanding death and dying: Ages and stages

By: Lysa Toye MSW, RSW, DipEXAT

(An explanatory note: Adults caring for children are not always their parents. They may be grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings or foster parents - particularly when the person in a family who is dying, or who has died, is a parent. For this reason, “caregiver” is used throughout this article to describe the person caring for children and youth. Educators and others involved in the care of children and youth may also find this information of value.)

As children move through infancy to adulthood, their brains go through extraordinary changes. With each stage of development, they mature physically, emotionally, socially, intellectually and in their use of language. Being conscious of their children’s stage of development can help caregivers to:

  • Talk with them about death.
  • Understand their reaction to grief and loss.
  • Support them through this difficult time.

It’s important to keep in mind that even within these stages, each child is unique and their own person. Whatever their age and stage, environment and history can also play a role in their level of understanding (for example, when a child or teen has already experienced the death of a loved one or a cherished pet).

Infants and toddlers (0-2 years)

  • While infants and toddlers probably don’t understand that someone is dying or has died, they are acutely sensitive to any change or disruption in their environment and routine. 
  • They are intensely aware of anything that affects their security, physical and emotional needs, including a caregiver’s absence. 
  • Infants and toddlers feel comforted and secure when normal routines are continued as much as is possible and they are cared for with sensitivity. 
  • While they may not remember a death that occurred in infancy, the negative impact can be imprinted on the developing minds of infants and toddlers when their needs aren’t adequately met, and when the illness or death results in extreme stress.
  • Although they probably have few or no memories of the person who has died, a bond can be nurtured as infants and toddlers age and grow by:
    • Telling stories about the person.
    • Sharing photos or videos.
    • Describing the relationship the child was too young to remember. For example,
      • “Did you know that Grandpa used to love to bake bread?”
      • “You have the same smile as your mom.”
      • “Your sister loved to tickle your toes when you were a baby.”

Preschool-aged children (2-4 years)

  • Children continue to be sensitive to changes in caregivers, routine and environment.
  • They start to understand death. 
  • They can identify people who are special to their family.
  • They learn about their world through their everyday events and storytelling. 
  • Pre-schoolers can be taught to understand what’s happening when a family member’s illness and dying is explained using simple, but honest, concrete language. 
    • Repeat this information frequently so young children can hold on to this new knowledge. 
  • They begin to experience and learn about a wider range of feelings for which caregivers can provide guidance and soothing.
  • They may use play to work through their experience of death and loss.  

Young children (5-9 years)

  • At this stage, children are still learning abstract ideas of space and time.  (Even adults can have difficulty understanding “forever,” or that a loved one is “gone” when they die.) 
  • They need help to understand why someone has died, and that “death” means the body stops working.
  • The explanations must be repeated often before they come to understand that death happens to all living things and is irreversible.
  • This can be frightening information for children as they start to realize everyone dies, that life is fragile and insecure.
  • Depending on their life experience of death and dying, this understanding comes at different ages for different children.

Age 10 to young adulthood

  • A key stage of teenage development is moving toward independence from caregivers.  
  • Peer friendships are generally their main source of support and connection. 
  • Teens may prefer to explore feelings and find formal support outside the home.
  • Peer group grief programs are often of particular benefit to this age group.

Grieving over time

It is said that grief lasts a lifetime, it simply changes over time. Children can experience their grief anew with each stage of development. It may be triggered when they begin to understand new concepts like the finality of death, or that it is universal and will happen to others important to them. Or when they are faced with special rites of passage such as graduations or religious ceremonies, moving through puberty, dating, or moving out of home following the death of an important person in their lives. Supporting your child and youth through loss is ongoing. It requires many conversations and exploration of new ideas and feelings over time.

  • Invite children and youth to continue sharing their thoughts, feelings and questions with you.
  • Check in with them regularly; be sure to support and validate whatever they are feeling.
  • Be proactive in acknowledging the death, especially with special occasions or holidays.
  • Children and teens alike benefit from a diverse network of support as they process their grief at each stage, and as their connection to the person who has died evolves over time.
    • Help them build connections with other adults and peers with whom they feel comfortable and safe to express their thoughts and emotions.
    • Connect them with other bereaved children and youth so they know they are not alone. 
    • Excellent support is available for all ages through local hospices, funeral home bereavement groups, grief support centres and online. (See Programs and Services.)

For more information on conversations about death with children and youth, see: