The adult should take his cue from the child. The older or more pensive child may need more immediate attention and response. Others may need their space while they acclimate to this news.
The child’s age has bearing as well. Preschool-age children who do not have a developed understanding of death may respond in a nonchalant or carefree manner. The only adverse response that may occur is a fear of one of their own parents experiencing this mysterious occurrence called death and then be apart from them.
School-age children possess an understanding of death and often seem particularly interested or preoccupied with the details surrounding the loss of life. This is particularly true when the death or injury occurred in sudden and violent catastrophes. It would not at all be uncommon if such children, especially boys, inquire more about the details surrounding the mishap than experience the sadness and horror of the death. This is typical for the age, and questions should be accurately and succinctly answered. These children are most prone to rumors, and it is imperative that the information is conveyed in an accurate fashion and consistent with that conveyed to their peers.
Adolescents have a developed capacity to intimately relate to the experiences of others. Upon learning of a catastrophic event, they may more easily place themselves in the position of the deceased or his or her loved ones. The profundity of their responses can be pronounced and may occasionally even need to be contained. Children of these ages may more readily question the divine purpose or justice of a catastrophe. The inexplicable nature of such tragedy or inability to understand the actions of Hashem is within the realm of what they can understand and can be imparted to them as well.
The eminent and famous psychologist, Dr. Erik H. Erikson, once stated that “healthy children will not fear life if their elders have integrity enough not to fear death.” Without diminishing the pain and heartfelt emotion that accompanies the death of a loved one, the more naturally and accurately we communicate to our children this unfortunate but realistic aspect of life, the better prepared and fortified they will be if confronted with such misfortune in the future.