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When Someone Dies – How to Help Young Children Through Their Grief
Over the years, I never had to deal with death much in my family childcare home. Grandparents would die, but many lived far away, so the loss wasn’t as profound for the children in my group, who ranged in age from 6 months to 6 years. Once a 3 year old gave me a dead bug. Not knowing what to say, I simply said, “Maybe he’s sleeping.” The little boy looked at me with the seriousness of a 3-year-old and said, “No, Linnie, he’s dead.” Then I realized that children know about death, but we need to help them deal with this natural process.
My adult nephew, Chris, had Muscular Dystrophy and lived with me for many years. It became a very important part of my children’s life at daycare. He gave them rides in his wheelchair, read to them, played his music for them to dance to, and gave them candy when I wasn’t looking! Many of the parents said they chose my program in part because they liked the fact that their child would be involved with a person with a disability. A mother told me that her family was at an amusement park one day and someone, using a wheelchair, walked by. Most of the kids ran away from this man, but her little boy ran up to him and said, “Hey! You have a wheelchair and so does my friend Chris.”
Chris became ill and died suddenly, in his sleep, on a Saturday morning. I called all the parents and told them that Chris had died. I closed my daycare on Monday so I could make the funeral arrangements. It was only then that I realized I needed to help the children understand this death while I dealt with my grief.
I reopened my daycare on Tuesday, although many of my friends said I should take time off to grieve. I just felt it would help us all to be together sooner. On Tuesday morning, I sat in our playroom and told the kids that Chris had died and he wasn’t coming back. Then we went to Chris’ empty bedroom, sat on the floor and talked about him some more. They kept asking where he was and I just said he died and he’s not coming back but we can remember him in many ways. I played some of his favorite music and they danced along. Together we read some of the books he had read to them. I even gave them sweets from his secret drawer! They sat on his bed and in his wheelchair. They sat in his empty wheelchair when he was in bed, but never moved in it unless Chris moved around with them. The moving wheelchair was an extension of Chris’ body. I thought about how to make the change look real and started pushing them around the house in his chair. They had never done that before, so it was a sign that things were different now. I also put some of his shirts and hats in the dressing area and put a picture of him in between their pictures on our wall. We also read a lot of picture books about death during that time. The older children dictated stories and drew pictures of Chris. Families were invited to Chris’ memorial gathering and children wrote messages to Chris, tied them to balloons and left them.
The younger children did not understand the loss. However, they felt, however, that something was different and that I was grieving. One day, a one-year-old who wasn’t usually very cuddly, jumped into my arms and hugged me as I sat on the floor and Chris was gone. He seemed to know I needed that hug. A six-year-old said matter-of-factly, “I guess we won’t be seeing Chris here anymore. Who’s going to take his place?” as he noted how the loss would affect us all. My 3-year-old niece, Chris’s cousin and godson, asked me why I was teary-eyed one day. I said I was sad and that I missed Chris. He said, “Me too! I wish he would come back.” All I could say was “I do too!”
Here are some ideas to help you with this very emotional, human experience.
o Be honest and use words like ‘died’ rather than ‘slept’. Children are very literal and may be afraid to sleep because they may also die. Answer their question honestly according to their age and developmental stage.
o Admit your feelings of sadness. It lets them know that sadness is normal and that adults understand how they feel.
o Talk about your loved one to keep their memory alive. Post photos, tell stories and view picture albums. Love and memories never go away, nor should they.
o Try to keep routines as consistent as possible.
o Some children will regress during this time and care and understanding will help.
Children of different ages and stages perceive death in different ways and need special considerations.
Infants up to two years old. They really have no idea about death, but they feel a deep loss after the death of a parent. They can sense feelings of sadness in others and react to changes in routines and caregivers. Consistent routines and loving caregivers will help relieve stress.
Children two to six years old. Children between the ages of two and six do not understand that death is final. They think that death is temporary or reversible. Many children this age do not seem to be affected by the death of a loved one because they actually believe that the person will return. They may feel they did something to cause the death. It is important that parents ask questions to determine feelings of responsibility and then reassure children that this is not true.
Children six to nine years old. 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 old people or other people. Children may not be able to accept the fact that death happens to everyone.
Children nine to twelve years old. Some children in this age group may still feel responsible for the death. Their understanding is growing and children in this age range can probably handle most of the information if given carefully.
Teenagers. By the time children reach adolescence, they probably understand death the same way adults do. Even though they have this understanding, they still need a lot of support from their parents and loved ones.
Books for young children and parents about death and dying
o The Dead Bird – Margaret Wise Brown
o The Fall of Freddie the Leaf. LeoBuscaglia
o Nana Upo and Nana Kato. Tommy de Paola
o My grandfather died today. Joan Fassler
o The Tenth Good Thing About Barney. Judith Viorst
o Lip Lap’s Wish. Jonathan London & Sylvia Long
o Badger’s parting gift. Susan Varley
o I love you forever. Robert Munns
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 (Guide Series) by Dougy Center for Grieving Children
o Help Me Say Goodbye: Activities to Help Kids Cope When a Special Person Dies by Janis Silverman
o Sad Isn’t Bad: A Good-Grief Guidebook for Kids Dealing With Loss (Elf-Help Books for Kids) by Michaelene Mundy
o What the hell do you do when someone dies? by Trevor Romain
o After Charlotte’s Mom Died (Hardcover) by Cornelia Spelman, Judith Friedman
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