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"Children's questions are a window to their soul- and a mirror to their inner thoughts and feelings." ~ Linda Goldman
Death is a difficult and sensitive subject to talk to children about. Most adults are at a loss for words. Since many don't know what to say or do for children who have lost someone through death, many adults wind up avoiding children's questions. Some adults won't talk to children at all about this very important subject or quickly change the subject. They are afraid of upsetting the child or fear that talking about it will be hurtful to the child. Yet we do know that "if it is mentionable, it is manageable."
Often children will share how angry or alone they feel at having their questions ignored or dismissed by adults. "Will I die too?" "Where is my friend now that he died?" "Are you going to die too"? "Who will take care of me?" "Did she suffer?"
When adults respond in a sensitive, caring and developmentally appropriate way, we help to normalize children's uncomfortable feelings, ideas and concerns. Acknowledging their questions is an important way to reassuring them and helping them feel safe. Children need to feel safe after something tragic happens. Often their world is shaken and anything we can do to help "ground" them will be beneficial to their healing process. Children enjoy routines and when we try to keep things in their lives the same, as much as we can, that helps them to feel that their whole life hasn't changed. The more things stay the same after a loss, the better in many ways for children.
Giving too much information or too many details can overwhelm a child as well. Also though, when adults limit responses to a few words or even refuse to answer children get the message not to talk about it. Death is a closed subject, don't ask again. This can create many problems for children. Many who can't ask questions or talk about their thoughts and concerns may manifest their grief in unhealthy ways or through acting out or somatic complaints, mainly stomach aches and head aches.
We want to create a safe environment for children where all questions are welcomed, accepted and responded to openly and without judgment. Sometimes our answer may be, "I don't really know the answer to that. What do you think?"
Children re-grieve at different developmental stages. During early childhood they are often satisfied with simple definitions and explanations. Many times children believe that they are responsible for the person's death. Magical thinking takes over and it is important that children be heard and also helped to understand that wishing someone to go away or even to die won't make a person die. A great book on the subject of Magical thinking is : I Know I Made it Happen by Lynn Blackburn.
As they get older they become more curious about the facts of the death, and may come back to it at ages 8, 9 and 10 and revisit the death with a new interest and more questions. In pre-adolescence and adolescence they have a strong need to look to their own age group for answers. Children at this age understand that death is not reversible. Life is finite. Young people begin to form their own spiritual belief system and look to peers for support and understanding. A great movie (DVD or VHS) that is in French but has English subtitles is : Ponette with Jacques Doilon. Can be ordered on Amazon. It is about a young girl who lost her mother in a car crash in which the little girl survived but the mom did not. Beautiful and won Best Foreign Film award.
When a young child dies because of accident or illness, most adults are faced with a terrible dilemma: should the child's friends and classmates be told what happened? How does one tell a child about the death of a child? Does hiding or avoiding the truth "protect" children or potentially harm them? How much information should children be given?
When do children begin to understand the concept of death?
Children often understand death by their age or developmental stage. Children under five often don't grasp the concept that death is final and universal- that all living things eventually die. Children around 6-9 tend to think of death as a person- a shadowy figure, like the Boogey man who can be thwarted or outsmarted if they only knew how! By ten or older, most understand what death means and ponder such concepts as afterlife.
Parents, teachers and other caring adults need to lay the groundwork for a more complete understanding of death by being receptive and honest in responding to children's questions about death.
Great Answers to Difficult Questions about Death: What Children Need to Know by Linda Goldman (website: www.griefnet.org)
Talking about Death: A Dialouge between Parent and Child by Earl Grollman
I Had a Friend Named Peter: Talking to Children About the Death of a Friend by Janice Cohn
The Journey Through Grief and Loss: Helping Yourself and Your Child When Grief is Shared by Robert Zucker
When a Friend Dies: A Book for Teens About Grieving and Healing by Marilyn Gootman
A Child's View of Grief: A Guide for Parents, Teachers and Counselors by Alan Wolfelt
Overcoming Loss: Activities and Stories to Help Transform Children's Grief and Loss by Julia Sorensen
When Someone Very Special Dies: Children Can Learn to Cope with Grief by Marge Eaton
Children Also Grieve: Talking about Death and Healing by Linda Goldman
Lifetimes by Bryan Mellonie
Help Me Say Goodbye: Activities for Helping Kids Cope When a Special Person Dies by Janice Silverman
Straight Talk about Death for Teenagers: How to Cope with Losing Someone You Love by Earl Grollman
What Does that Mean? A Dictionary of Death, Dying and Grief Terms for Grieving Children and Those who Love Them by Harold Ivan Smith
When a Child You Love is Grieving by Harold Ivan Smith
A Check List for Children (from Linda Goldman's book, Great Answers to Difficult Questions about Death)
For Caring Adults (from Linda Goldman's book, Great Answers to Difficult Questions about Death)
Common signs of grieving children:
Talk to or about their person in the present
Imitate gestures of the person who died
Idolize the person who died
Create their own unique spiritual beliefs
Worry excessively about their health and the health of others
Worry about death
Show regressive behaviors (clingy, babyish, etc).
What Can Adults Do?
Be truthful. Keep explanations simple. Share the facts. Remind children it was not their fault. Define death. Alow children to be recognized mourners. Remember children grieve differently. Treat every child and their grief as unique. Include children in family illness. Honor a child's belief system. Prepare for funerals and memorials.
For more information on children/teens and funerals, visit the page on this site called: Children at Funerals?
For more information on ages and stages of grieving children visit the page: Ages and Stages
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