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"Children are no strangers to grief. Even infants and toddlers react to loss. When younger children are shielded from death, silence does not take away their pain; it only increases their sense of isolation and abandonment. As adults, we need to understand their concerns, their fantasies, their images of death. We need to acknowledge their fears as real- they are! Above all, we must utilize teachable moments to talk about death in reaching out to children in this, the most profound and far-reaching changes in their lives." ~ Earl Grollman, D.D. Founder of the Boston Good Grief Program
Children today are very aware of death much more than adults realize. A pet is "put to sleep", a grandparent dies, a space shuttle explodes, Bambi's mother is killed, a teenager opens fire inside a high school, thousands were murdered in 9-11. Children need adults now more than ever to help them make sense of things like this which can be very painful and confusing for us, let alone young children. Many adults avoid the topic of death, but that doesn't help the child. As Fred Rogers, says, "If it is mentionable, it is manageable." When adults talk openly about their own feelings about death, they become role models for children and teens. When we invite children to be involved in the mourning process in an accepting and supportive environment, they then will feel safe to ask questions and even share their feelings of sadness, anger, guilt or protest. Only the honest acknowledgement of painful separation, not the denial of it, will lead to positive mental health.
Infants and Toddlers:
Children perceive and react to death according to their developmental level, age, and life experiences. Even very young children try to understand death. From birth to about 5, children often think of death as taking a trip or going to sleep. Death is reversible, not permanent- after all, people wake up, and , when going on a trip, they return home again. Death is like the game of peek-a-boo, which in Old English meant alive or dead. Young children often see cartoon characters rise up again after what appears to be their destruction. One three year old whose brother had recently died, kissed her father goodnight, and then asked when her brother would be back. Another 3 year old went up to his Pop Pop's casket at the wake and said, "OK, Pop Pop, you can get up now. Wake up Pop Pop."
Although young children may not understand the permanence of death, they do react to loss. Changes in the emotional atmosphere of the home and the responses of significant others upset their secure world. Very young children often react by becoming very irritable and even inconsolable. Some children will show a change in their eating habits or sleeping habits, or bowel or bladder disturbances. They may even regress to behavior that they had previously outgrown such as thumb-sucking or bed-wetting.
It isn't unusual for a three or four year old may be afraid to go to daycare or school or even to sleep at night. They may demand extra attention from adults, be more clingy than usual, follow adults around, want them near and even want to get into bed with them at night. They fear that by being separated from their parents or other adults, harm may come to them as well. Some young children have difficulty concentrating on their activities, become withdrawn from friends and can become apathetic and even depressed.
Practical Suggestions When Talking with Children about Death
* Be honest; give age appropriate information
* Follow the child's lead.
* Adults need to answer the hard questions about death for ourselves so that we can answer the children.
* Allow death to be discussed openly in the home.
* Use teachable moments (news, pet loss, friend's grandparent died, friend moved away, uncle is ill).
* Do not be afraid to openly express your emotions in front of your children. This is a way to give the child permission to grieve as well as being a good role model.
* Listen to your children and answer questions that are asked.
* It is okay to say, "I don't know" or "I don't have that information right now".
* Avoid euphemisms such as "he passed away", "we put the cat to sleep", "we lost him", "he went on a long journey. These only confuse children. Use the words died and dead.
* It is okay to discuss your own belief in an after life or heaven but only after you explain to the child that the person died which means that his or her body stopped working.
* Understand that this first discussion about death will only be the beginning. Children ask more as they understand more.
* Do not let the child believe that you have all of the answers.
* Include children in funerals. Give them enough information about the funeral and all that goes on so that they can make an informed choice. Don't assume they are too young or don't want to go. Funerals are a good way to teach children about support, rituals and gives them a chance to say goodbye.
* Help children establish a living memory of the person or the animal that has died.
* Children pick up our non verbal cues and will stop talking if they sense that it upsets us too much to talk about.
* Give children helpful ways to express their feelings. Grief creates a lot of energy in children and they need to move, pound clay, write, sing, play with puppets, cry, scream, draw to name a few ways. Remember that child's work is play and that is how most children and teens handle loss.
* Don't assume that because a child appears "fine" that he is fine and needs no support from an adult. Children often appear to act like nothing happened and yet are grieving. Children are often called the "forgotten mourner". They are not too young to grieve.
* If a child can love, he can grieve.
* Children re-grieve as they reach new developmental stages.
* Grief has no time line and happens over a long period of time. There is no way to speed it up. Children and teens need adults to have a lot of patience.
* Teens often want a lot of privacy in their grief. Still, offer yourself from time to time. Let them know you care and are there to listen or just spend time together.
Some helpful books to read with children about death:
When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown
Help Me Say Goodbye: Activities for Helping Kids Cope When a Special Person Dies by Janis Silverman
I Miss You: A First Look at Death by Pat Thomas
"What Does That Mean?" Explaining concepts around death to a child:
When a child asks an adult questions about loss, death or grief, consider these things first:
* What is the child really asking? Watch your child as you explain and you may be able to tell if you are on target. Ask the child more questions if you need to find out what he wants to know.
* Ask, "To whom is this child listening?" Adults in children's lives are all likely to share their own definitions and explanations. Many may not be in sync with yours. Share what you believe and go from there and let the child share as well.
* Make is safe for a child to ask about death, dying and grief.
* Tell the child the truth.
* Answer again and again and then again. Be patient.
* Work on your own definitions. It is okay to say, "I don't know but will find out for you."
* Be surprisable. Be open to being confronted by the wisdom of a child.
Some common words and some definitions:
Casket or Coffin: The special box in which the dead person's body is placed before it is buried.
Most are made of fine wood or metal. There is even a pillow for the head, even though the person inside cannot feel it. Coffins are a type of casket with six sides and is shaped more like the body than a casket is. Coffins are used more in other countries than in the United States. Families can choose to have an open or closed casket at the funeral. With an open casket, people can see the body of the person who died. With a closed casket, the body cannot be seen because the lid is shut. Caskets are often shut when the person has died in a bad wreck or has been sick for so long that the body is damaged.
Dead: When a person's body no longer works, that person is dead. All that is left is the body. The life in that person: the feelings- tasting, moving, eating, going to the bathroom, the thinking and talking, the laughter, the tears - are gone. The body is like a peanut shell with no peanut, or an egg shell with no egg inside. Sometimes adults say "passed away" or "passed", "gone". But remember, dead is dead. It is not like we passed a test or are gone from a room. We may think of a cell phone as dead to mean not working now, but will soon. However this person will not come to life again. Sometimes it is hard to believe that a person is dead, especially if we loved them.
"Dead means that someone has died and their body stopped working. The heart stops beating and breathing stops. The brain doesn't send or receive messages. She no longer can see, hear, touch, taste, smell, eat, play, feel or think. She cannot move. Some dead may look asleep, but she isn't sleeping and she can't wake up." (excerpt from When Dinosaurs Die, by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown.)
Funeral Service: A special time after a person has died when family, friends and neighbors come together to say goodbye and offer condolences. Sometimes it is in a funeral home. The funeral home is where the body was taken after the person died. Sometimes the funeral is in the church or synagogue. It is a time to remember the person, to say goodbye and thank you to the person who lived. There will be music, flowers and sometimes songs and prayers. Someone may give a eulogy. That is when someone shares about the person who died and what memories they want to talk about. They tell about the person's life. The casket is always present at a funeral. Maybe the casket is open or closed. If the body isn't present it is called a memorial service. Some people who say prayers are clergy. If you are Jewish, your clergy person will be a Rabbi. If you are Catholic, Episcopalian, or Orthodox, your clergy will be a priest. If you are Protestant, it will be a minister. If you are Muslim, your clergy will be an Emir. Some services are short and some very long. Some families like to call the funeral or memorial a Celebration of Life.
Suicide: When a person kills himself or herself on purpose. When a person makes his or her own body stop working.
There are many reasons why people die by suicide. Research tells us now that 95% of people who die by suicide had a mental illness that was diagnosed or was un-diagnosed. At the time of a suicide a person is not thinking about the effect it will cause on their family and friends. Sometimes the person thinks that their family and friends will be glad that they are dead. This is never, never what happens. A family is always sad and wish that they could have helped the person.
Families feel terrible when someone dies by suicide. Some people try to pretend it was an accident. It is always better to be honest when someone ends their own life. Here is a good way to understand what happens: "Some people's bodies get sick and don't work right. And sometimes a person's brain or mind doesn't work right. They can't see things clearly and they feel the only way to solve their problems is to take their own life- to kill themselves. However, this is never a solution to problems, the only reason they thought of it is that they weren't thinking very clearly. (How do We Tell the Children? by Dan Schafer and Christine Lyons)It is important to teach children that there are always solutions to any problem. It always helps to share our problems with others and listen to the ways that other people may suggest that we might solve our problem. It is also important as friends of someone who had someone die by suicide that the focus should be on the loss of the person and not on "how" the person died. No matter what someone is still missing having someone in their life. There is a lot more confusion, sadness and anger with a death by suicide. It is helpful if the person can find a suicide survivor group to attend or to go to a suicide survivor web site. Often people want to be with others who have had a similar situation happen.
Some Helpful Books for Talking to Children About Suicide:
My Uncle Keith Died by Carol Ann Loehr (explains suicide as a result of depression, which is a medical illness, much like diabetes as it affects how an organ of the body isn't working correctly.) www.thegiftofkeith.org
Somebody I know Died by Suicide: A story for child survivors and those who care for them by Doreen Cammarata
After a Suicide: A Workbook for Grieving Kids by The Dougy Center
But I Didn't Say Goodbye: Helping children and families after a suicide by Barbara Rubel, MA
*** A friend just shared this suggestion which I think could be great for young children. It's called a calm jar. You fill the jar (plastic container will work too) with blue dyed colored water and glitter. When you are upset you shake the jar and have to watch it until the glitter completely settles. The time it takes may be enough time for a child to settle their emotions.
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Never underestimate the power of one adult to change the life of a child.
A basic ingredient in nurturing hope and resilience in our children is the presence of at least one adult who communicates to a child, through words and actions, "I believe in you and I will stand by you." Raising Resilient Children by Brooks and Goldstein.
"Research shows that a positive relationship with an adult who is available to provide support when needed is one of the most critical factors in preventing student violence...Some children need help overcoming feelings of isolation and support in developing connections to others." Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools
When asked what helped them succeed against all odds, resilient children, youth and adults overwhelmingly and exclusively gave the credit to members of their extended family, to neighbors and teachers, to mentors and voluntary associations and church groups. Emmy Werner.
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