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When Someone Dies – How to Help Young Children Through Their Grief
For years, I didn’t have to deal with death in a nursing home. When grandparents died, most of them lived far away, so the loss was not too deep for the children in my group, who were between the ages of 6 and 6 months. Once a three-year-old gave me a dead virus. Not really knowing what to say, I just said maybe he’s sleeping. The little boy looked at me with the determination of a three-year-old and said, “No, Lynnie, she’s dead.” This is when I realized that children know about death but we have to help them to deal with it.
My oldest nephew, Chris, had Muscular Dystrophy and lived with me for many years. They became an important part of my foster children’s lives. He would take them in his wheelchair, read to them, sing his songs for them to dance to and sneak candy when I wasn’t looking! Many parents said they chose my program because they wanted their child to be in a relationship with a person with a disability. A woman told me that one day her family was at the resort and a man passed by in a wheelchair. Many children ran away from this man, but his little boy ran to him and said, “Hi!
Chris fell ill and died suddenly, in his sleep, one Saturday morning. I called all the parents and told them that Chris had died. I closed my afternoon on Monday to make funeral arrangements. This is when I realized that I have to help the children understand this death when I was grieving.
I reopened my babysitting job on Tuesday, even though many of my friends told me to take a week off to cry. I just felt that it would help both of us to be together as soon as possible. Tuesday morning, I sat in our playroom and told the kids that Chris had passed away and was never coming back. Then we went into Chris’ empty bedroom, sat down and talked about him again. He kept asking where he is and I just said that he is dead and he is not coming back but we can remember him in many ways. I played his favorite songs and he danced. We read several books together that he read to her. I even gave them candy from his secret candy store! They sat on his bed and on his chair. They liked to sit on his empty bike while he was in bed but never moved unless Chris was walking with them. The wheelchair was an extension of Chris’s body. I thought about how I could make this change look real so I started pushing them around the house in their chair. They had never done that before so it was a sign that now things have changed. I also put some of his shirts and hats in the dresser and put his picture among their pictures on our wall. We also read several picture books about death at that time. The older children told them stories and took pictures of Chris. The families were invited to a memorial service for Chris and the children wrote messages to Chris, tied them to balloons and released them.
Young children did not understand loss; However, they noticed, but they saw that something was different and that I was sad. One day, a one-year-old who wasn’t usually very friendly, threw himself onto my lap and hugged me as I sat down missing Chris. He seemed to know that I needed a hug. A six-year-old boy said bluntly, “I don’t think we’ll ever see Chris again. As he saw how the loss would affect us all. My three-year-old granddaughter, Chris’s cousin and Goddaughter, asked me why I was in tears the other day. I said I had sad and that I miss Chris. She said: “I wish he would come back too.” All I could say was “I would too!”
Here are some ideas to help with this, personal thought.
o Be honest and use words like “died” and not “slept.” Children are real and they are afraid to sleep because they might die. Answer their question honestly according to their age and stage of development.
o Admit that you are sorry. It helps them to know that grief is normal and that adults understand their feelings.
o Talk about the loved one to keep the memory alive for them. Add photos, tell stories and browse photo albums. Love and memories never end, nor should they.
o Try to have as regular a routine as possible.
o Some children regress at this stage and care and understanding can help.
Children of different ages and stages understand death in different ways and need special consideration.
Babies up to two years. They have no idea of death but feel a great loss at the death of a parent. They are able to recognize grief in others and take action to change behavior with caregivers. Regular activities and loving caregivers can help reduce stress.
Children aged two to six. Children between the ages of two and six do not understand that death is final. They think that death is temporary or transitory. Many children at this age do not seem to be affected by the death of a loved one because they believe that the person will return. They may think that they have done something to cause the death. It is better for parents to ask questions to find out if they are responsible, and then to convince the children that this is not true.
Children aged six to nine. Around the age of six, most children begin to understand that death is final, although this understanding is not complete. They may see death as something that only happens to the elderly or to other people. Children cannot accept the fact that death happens to everyone.
Children aged nine to twelve. Some children of this age may still feel responsible for the death. Their understanding is growing and children of this age may be able to learn more if they are given careful attention.
Young people. As children reach their teenage years, they are likely to understand death and the adult. Even with this knowledge, they still need a lot of support from their parents and loved ones.
Books for Young Children and Parents about Death and Dying
o Dead Bird – Margaret Wise Brown
o The Fall of Freddie the Leaf. LeoBuscaglia
o Nana Up and Nana Down. Tomie de Paola
o My Grandfather Died Today. Joan Fassler
o The Ten Best Things About Barney. Judith Viors
o Lip Lap requirements. Jonathan London and Sylvia Long
o Badger’s Parting Gift. Susan Varley
o I Love You Forever. Robert Munsch
o I Miss You: A First Look at Death Pat Thomas
o When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death (Dino Life Guides for Families) Laurie Krasny Brown, Marc Brown
o 35 Ways to Help a Grieving Child (Booklist) by the Dougy Center for Grieving Children
o Help Me Say Goodbye: Activities to Help Children Cope with the Death of a Special Person by Janis Silverman
o Sadness Ain’t Bad: A Guide to Losing Kids (Elf-Help Books for Kids) by Michaelene Mundy
o What on earth do you do when someone dies? and Trevor Romain
o Charlotte’s Mother Dies (Hardcover) by Cornelia Spelman, Judith Friedman
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