There's No Normal When it Comes to Kids' Reactions to Death

by Pam Moore August 31, 2017

Young blonde girl laughing and embarrassed giggle covering mouth with hands

“Are you taking the sick chicken to the vet today?” my daughter asked me. She’d been awake less than five minutes and she was already talking about the one thing I didn’t want to discuss – our chickens. We’d raised them since they were chicks. For two long, smelly months, we kept them under a heat lamp in a dog crate in our basement. Once they were big enough, we relocated them to a coop in our backyard where they’d lived not even two weeks when we woke one morning to find nothing but their bloody entrails. (By "we" I mean my husband.) Our kids, ages three and five, loved observing and feeding the chickens as they grew from itty bitty babies into full-size birds. Our five-year-old was thrilled that in exchange for helping care for the chickens, she’d have the opportunity to sell eggs to friends and neighbors. She couldn’t wait to replenish her “money-wallet.” Although I had no idea exactly how to break the news of the chickens’ demise to our kids, I knew I had to tell the truth. I just wished I’d had my coffee before I did. I looked at my eldest from across the kitchen table as the early morning sun cast a glow across her face. I braced myself for a tantrum, tears, or both, took a deep breath, and said, “The chickens died overnight.” “How?” she asked. “The coop was left unlocked and we think a raccoon got in and ate them,” my husband said. “But I was the last one to look at them yesterday,” she said. “I left it unlocked.” “No!” we exclaimed. “It wasn’t your fault at all,” I assured her. “The grown-ups should have made sure it was locked before we went to bed. That’s not your responsibility,” my husband said. We exhaled and waited for her to explode, as she is wont to do when things don’t go as planned. Instead, our eldest looked in the direction of her little sister’s room, and with a sing-song voice, she cried out, “Oh, sissy! I have news for you!” She stretched the word “news” into two syllables. I looked at my husband with raised eyebrows. Our younger daughter toddled into the living room, rumpled from sleep. “What is it?” she asked. “Our chickens died!” her big sister exclaimed, with a sly, knowing smile on her lips. I shot my husband a “Holy shit is our kid a psychopath?” look. He shot me one right back that said, “Hell if I know, but that was really weird.” Like so much of parenting, the “Telling Your Kid Her Pet Chickens Got Killed” chapter did not go as we’d expected. According to Jill Ceder, psychotherapist and parent coach, there is wide range of preschoolers’ reactions to death that fall within the normal range. Common ones include:
  • expressing anxiety or fearfulness
  • being clingier than usual
  • experiencing difficulty sleeping
  • displaying regressed behaviors (e.g., bed-wetting and thumb-sucking)
  • showing changes in their appetite
  • looking for the person or pet who has died
Meanwhile, they may demonstrate little reaction of any kind. Ceder says this, too, is perfectly normal. It is important to note that preschoolers are typically unable to understand the finality of death. Says Ceder, “magical thinking is present at this age so it is common for preschoolers to think someone will come alive again or that they have the power to make someone die with their thoughts.” According to the NYU’s Child Study Center, at three to five years old, with no concept of death’s permanence, children at this age perceive death as living under different circumstances, so even though they may have seen the burial, they may still worry about that person getting hungry, for example. If your child experiences a loss it is important to support them by being open and honest. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, when talking to preschoolers about death, adults should avoid euphemisms like, “he’s passed away,” or, “she’s gone to sleep.” As concrete thinkers, children will take these words literally, and consequently may become afraid of sleeping. Instead, they should be told something along the lines of, “She has died, which means we will not be able to see her again,” along with the reassurance that memories last forever. We can also support children dealing with death or loss by understanding that they are not necessarily able to put their feelings into words. Experts at the American Academy of Pediatrics remind parents that play can be the language of childhood. So, don’t be surprised if your child expresses her thoughts and fears while playing and be open to listening and trying to understand the messages she’s trying to communicate via play. If and when your child does express curiosity and asks questions, Ceder reminds parents to be honest when answering their questions. Additionally, parents shouldn’t be surprised if their preschooler asks the same questions repeatedly and wants the details repeated many times, as this is how they process information. When answering questions, less is more; kids don’t need long, complicated answers. The National Institutes of Health recommends only answering the question that was asked and doing it with age-appropriate language. It’s also important to validate kids’ feelings. For example, saying something like, “Don’t be sad Sparky died, he’s in heaven now,” is not helpful. Rather, allow your child to be sad and offer empathy. You could say something like, “I know you miss him and it’s hard right now.” Even if, like mine, your child learns about the death of her pets and is neither sad nor curious, but instead appears strangely gleeful – this is not necessarily cause for concern. Ceder reassures parents that “most reactions would be normal, everyone experiences death and grief differently. Death is a confusing, complex and interesting topic for kids (and adults).” As for whether my child is a psychopath, Ceder says her reaction to the tragic news of our chickens’ murder wouldn’t be any indication.

“Many times adults place a judgment on a child’s behavior, but the child is just ‘reporting the news.’ At first, it sounds as if your daughter was worried that she would be blamed. She may have genuinely felt bad/worried or she may have been scared she would get in trouble - both normal reactions. But when you reassured her that it was not her fault, she switched over to “news reporting mode.” It appears to me that she thought this was an exciting event to share with her sister. Her response was normal and healthy in the same way that children between 3-5 years old say ‘I am taller, you are shorter.’ ‘I am older, you are younger.’ As adults, many times we want to jump in and say - that isn't the right thing to say…assuming the other child may be offended or feel less than. But many times, the child is just stating an observation. Your daughter was stating what just happened. Her reactions fall into the normal category because she does not understand the finality of death and because she does not attach sad feelings to death like we do as we get older.”

Guiding a child through death and loss is never fun. It helps to know, though, that just as there are so many different normal, healthy ways to be a kid, so are there a wide variety of healthy, normal ways for kids to process the experience.

Pam Moore


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