Facing Death: How Children React to the Death of a Parent

Facing Death: How Children React

Facing Death: How Children React

The way your children react to the prospect of a parent's death is going to surprise you, the well parent. And not all the surprises are going to be pleasant.

Remember that a child's world is absolutely centered on himself. Only as we grow toward adulthood do we gain the ability to see through others' eyes, walk the mile in someone else's moccasins.

The important thing to remember, as your children begin to look toward the future, is that every family is unique, and every child will respond in his own way. There are no hard-and-fast rules as to what is the proper response and what isn't; there are only guidelines. And the first guideline is that the child works outward from his own needs.

The Question: "Why?"

At some point, your children will ask it: Why?

I've dealt with families of every denomination: Families that believe in a joyous afterlife and families that believe in none; Jewish families who tell me a loved one lives on in the people who loved her, and Buddhists who explain reincarnation to me and their children. Sometimes, if a child asks me, "Why?" I will turn the question around and ask, "What do you think? Why does God do the things He or She does?"

Usually, I find that children have some beginnings of an explanation, based on what they've learned at home, and at church, and in life.

Dealing with Your Children's Fury and Despair

You must be prepared to deal with fury and despair. Children have told me, "I think God is terrible, and I don't want to believe in God anymore." I acknowledge that, tell them, "It sounds like you're really angry at God, like you really blame God for all this." And I suggest that, after a while, the child talk it out with the family priest, minister, rabbi, or counselor.

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Sometimes children just want to lash out, and I tell them, "I understand how mad you must be, not only at God, but everybody you think had anything to do with why your mom is dying—the doctors, the nurses, the other driver, the car-maker, the cigarette company..."

Usually I find that children will give in to their feelings and then leave the need for explanation behind them. "Life is unfair." And that's fine; it's useful for them. And there really is no final explanation for why we ebb and flow as we do.

How Children Grieve: Processing the Loss

Facing Death: How Children React

If you were to come to my office at this point, I would give you a little essay called "The Grief of Children." It was written by Susan Woolsey, of the Maryland SIDS Information and Counseling Project, and it's the best short summary I've found about how children process the terrible tragedy of a parent's death and how the surviving parent can help them through.

[Editor's Note: The rest of this article is a section of the aforementioned essay by Susan Woolsey.]


Outlined below are explanations that adults may give a child hoping to explain why a person she loved has died. Unfortunately, simple but dishonest answers can only serve to increase the fear and uncertainty that the child is feeling.

Children tend to be very literal — if an adult says that "Grandpa died because he was old and tired" the child may wonder when he too will be too old; he certainly gets tired — what is tired enough to die?

  • "Grandma will sleep in peace forever." This explanation may result in the child's fear of going to bed or to sleep.
  • "It is God's will." The child will not understand a God who takes a loved one because He needs that person Himself. Or "God took him because he was so good." The child may decide to be bad so God won't take him too.
  • "Daddy went on a long trip and won't be back for a long time." The child may wonder why the person left without saying good-bye. Eventually he will realize Daddy isn't coming back and feel that something he did caused Daddy to leave.
  • "John was sick and went to the hospital where he died." The child will need an explanation about "little" and "big" sicknesses. Otherwise, he may be extremely fearful if he or someone he loves has to go to the hospital in the future.


As in all situations, the best way to deal with children is honestly. Talk to the child in a language that he can understand. Remember to listen to the child and try to understand what the child is saying and, just as important, what he's not saying. Children need to feel that the death is an open subject and that they can express their thoughts or questions as they arise.

Adults can help prepare a child to deal with future losses of those who are significant by helping the child handle smaller losses through sharing their feelings when a pet dies or when death is discussed in a story or on television.

In helping children understand and cope with death, remember four key concepts: be loving, be accepting, be truthful, and be consistent.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
St. Martin's Griffin/St. Martin's Press. www.stmartins.com
©1994, 2011 by Kathleen McCue with Ron Bonn

This article was adapted with permission from the book:

How to Help Children Through a Parent's Serious Illness: Supportive, Practical Advice from a Leading Child Life Specialist
-- by Kathleen McCue M.A. C.C.L.S. with Ron Bonn.

How to Help Children Through a Parent's Serious IllnessFully revised and updated, this new edition also explores the major issues and developments from the last decade that affect children today, including the dangers and opportunities of the Internet, a deeper understanding of how hereditary diseases affect children, the impact of the nation's explosive growth in single-parent families, and new insights into how family trauma and a parent’s mental illness may affect children.

Click here for more info and/or to order this book on Amazon.

About the Authors

KATHLEEN MCCUE, M.A., C.C.L.S.KATHLEEN MCCUE, M.A., C.C.L.S. pioneered the care and treatment of children stressed by a parent’s grave illness in her renowned clinic and playroom at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. She then founded and continues to direct the children’s program at The Gathering Place, a support center for families touched by cancer, in Cleveland. This book is based on her lifetime of experience in the field she helped create.

RON BONNRON BONN, a three-time Emmy Award winning television journalist, now teaches journalism at the University of San Diego. From 1960 to 2000 Ron Bonn served as producer and executive producer for CBS News, NBC News, and others, including five years as senior producer of "The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite" and creation of such programs as "Universe," the science magazine for television.


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