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Developmental Stages of Understanding Death

This is a general guideline in reference to the differences between ages and stages of how children perceive and understand death. Of course, maturity and differences in cognitive development will mean that some children are in a stage ahead or behind their chronological age. Remember, this is just a guideline.

UNDER 3 (preverbal)

• no language to attach to thoughts/experience - greatest need is for immediate bonding to new support

AGES 3-6 (magical thinking)

• May believe s/he caused the death by magic

• Associate death when concurrent events/place (Grandma died in hospital, so everyone who goes to the hospital will die)

• Experience grief in heavy but brief spurts

• Deny death as final process (Mom will come back for my birthday)

• Often forget person has died

• Fear loss and abandonment by remaining parent

• See death as change in state or gradual process (a leaf is “more dead” than a toaster)

• Usually have few fears about pain/distress for the deceased 

• May not be open to reason or fact about cause of death - at this age they often “determine” facts for themselves

• See death as caused by external forces (retaliation, strife).

AGES 6-9 (concrete reasoning)

• Tend to personify death (death dropper, angel of death)

• Are superstitious, lots of ghost stories (chants, oaths).

• Associate death with non-movement (The dead can’t talk, move, and walk)

• Begin to explore concepts of death relative to family (Some day Mom will die

• May experience sadness in anticipation of deaths that are not ‘’rationally’’ imminent

• Believe it will happen to others, not themselves

• Are moving away from magical thinking toward grasping concepts of finality

• Around 6, may have fascination with death

• Around 8, may have morbid fascination with death rituals, also dreams of death and resurrection

• May think material facts around death are funny


• Grow increasingly closer to adult views, experiences

• Can begin to be philosophical in viewing death

• May idealize the deceased, especially if a friend, sibling, or parent

• May experience conflict of needing to be growing independent (Appropriate for developmental stage) while needing family support during crisis/grief

• Have greatest fears about separation and non-existence.

• Provide structure and routine, but be flexible when needed.

• Seize special moments that may arise in class to teach about grief.

• Know that you cannot take away the pain, fear, loneliness or feeling of being different. Your role is to be a safe person to whom feelings can be expressed.

• Comprehend that the student’s life has changed forever, and that it will never be the same.

• Allow for grief, sorrow, anger, or other feelings.

• Know where you can refer students and families for support.

• Children think concretely and will need your explanations of death to be concrete.

Avoid these common mistakes in word and action:

• Do not suggest that someone has grieved long enough.

• Do not indicate that someone should get over it and move on.

• Do not expect someone to complete all assignments on a timely basis.

• Do not act as if nothing has happened.

• Do not say things like: “It could be worse, you still have one brother.” “I know how you feel.” “You’ll be stronger because of this.”


1.  Talk honestly about the incident, without graphic detail and share some of your own feelings about it.  Children and teens need to feel informed when they see their parents and other adults reacting to crisis.


2.  Encourage children and teens to talk about their concerns and to express their feelings.  Some children may be hesitant to initiate such conversations, so you may want to ask what your child has heard about the incident and the feelings associated with it.  Validate your child's feelings.  Do not minimize his/her very real concerns.


3.  Limit television viewing for younger children, especially those of pre-school age.  It is very difficult for young children to process the images and messages in news reports


4.  Let children know that tragic events are not common and that, day-to-day, schools are safe places.


5.  Empower children to take action for their own school safety.  Encourage your child d to tell an adult (counselor, teacher, principal) about their concerns.  Let children know they can talk to you anytime.


6.  Recognize what may be behind your child's behavior.  Younger children may react directly to the tragedy by not wanting to attend school or participate in school-based activities.  Teens may minimize their own concerns outwardly, but may become argumentative, withdrawn or allow school performance to decline.


7.  Rebuild and reaffirm attachments.  Love and care in the family is a primary need.  Spend extra time with your child.  Hugs help.


8.  Reaffirm the future and talk in hopeful terms about future events.  This can help children and teens rebuild their trust and faith in the world.