Children's understanding of dying and death: A multinational grounded theory study


Children's understanding of dying and death: A multinational grounded theory study


Paula McPoland
Daniel H Grossoehme
Denice C Sheehan
Pamela Stephenson
Julia Downing
Theony Deshommes
Pascale Y H Gassant
Sarah Friebert




Objectives: The ways in which children understand dying and death remain poorly understood; most studies have been carried out with samples other than persons with an illness. The objective of this study was to understand the process by which children directly involved with life-limiting conditions understand dying and death.

Methods: This qualitative study obtained interview data from N = 44 5-18-year-old children in the USA, Haiti, and Uganda who were pediatric palliative care patients or siblings of patients. Of these, 32 were children with a serious condition and 12 were siblings of a child with a serious condition. Interviews were recorded, transcribed, verified, and analyzed using grounded theory methodology.

Results: Loss of normalcy and of relationships emerged as central themes described by both ill children and siblings. Resilience, altruism, and spirituality had a bidirectional relationship with loss, being strategies to manage both losses and anticipated death, but also being affected by losses. Resiliency and spirituality, but not altruism, had a bidirectional relationship with anticipating death. Themes were consistent across the 3 samples, although the beliefs and behaviors expressing them varied by country.

Significance of results: This study partially fills an identified gap in research knowledge about ways in which children in 3 nations understand dying and death. While children often lack an adult vocabulary to express thoughts about dying and death, results show that they are thinking about these topics. A proactive approach to address issues is warranted, and the data identify themes of concern to children.


Palliat Support Care
. 2023 Mar 24;1-8. doi: 10.1017/S1478951523000287. Online ahead of print.




Paula McPoland et al., “Children's understanding of dying and death: A multinational grounded theory study,” NEOMED Bibliography Database, accessed May 19, 2024,