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When Someone Dies – How to Help Young Children Through Their Grief
Over the years, I have never had to deal with death in my family daycare. Grandparents would die but many lived far away so the loss was not so deep for the children in my group who were aged 6 months to 6 years. Once a 3 year old handed me a dead bug. Not really knowing what to say, I just said, “Maybe he’s sleeping.” The little boy looked at me with only the seriousness a 3-year-old can muster and said, “No, Lynnie, he’s dead. It was then that I realized that children experience death, but we need to help them cope with this natural process.
My adult nephew, Chris, had muscular dystrophy and he lived with me for many years. It has become a very important part of my children’s daycare lives. He took them for rides in his wheelchair, read to them, played his music to them so they danced, and stuffed them with candy when I wasn’t looking! Many parents have said that they chose my program in part because they liked the fact that their child had a relationship with a person with a disability. A mother told me that one day her family was at an amusement park and someone in a wheelchair passed by. Most of the kids ran away from this man but his little boy ran up to him and said, “Hi! You have a wheelchair just like my friend Chris”
Chris fell ill and died suddenly in his sleep on a Saturday morning. I called all the parents and told them that Chris was dead. I closed my daycare on Monday to be able to organize the funeral. It was only then that I realized that I had to help the children understand this death while I dealt with my own grief.
I reopened my daycare on Tuesday, although many of my friends said I should take a week off to grieve. I just felt it would help us all get together sooner. Tuesday morning I sat in our playroom and told the kids that Chris was dead and wasn’t coming back. Then we went to Chris’s empty room, sat on the floor and talked about him again. They kept asking where he was and I just said he was dead and not coming back, but we can remember him in many ways. I played some of his favorite music and they danced to it. Together we read some of the books he had read to them. I even gave them candy from her secret candy drawer! They sat on his bed and in his wheelchair. They used to sit in his empty wheelchair when he was in bed, but they never moved unless Chris moved with them. The moving wheelchair was an extension of Chris’ body. I thought about how to make the change seem real, so I started pushing them around the house in his chair. They had never done this before, so it was a signal that things were different now. I also put some of his shirts and hats in the dressing area and placed a picture of him among their pictures on our wall. We also read several picture books about death during this 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 released them.
The younger children did not understand the loss; however, they sensed that something was different and that I was grieving. One day a one-year-old who wasn’t usually very cuddly jumped into my lap and hugged me as I sat on the floor while Chris was away. 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, cousin and goddaughter of Chris, asked me why I had tears in my eyes one day. I said I was sad and I missed Chris. She said, “Me too! I wish he would come back.” All I could say was “Me too!”
Here are some ideas to help you through this very moving human experience.
o Be honest and use words such as ‘deceased’ not ‘fell asleep’. Children are very literal and they may be afraid to fall asleep because they may also die. Answer their question honestly based on their age and stage of development.
o Admit your feelings of grief. It lets them know that grief is normal and that adults understand how they feel.
o Talk about the loved one to keep the memory alive for them. View photos, tell stories and view photo albums. Love and memories never fade, and neither 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 understand death in different ways and need special considerations.
Two-year-old infants. They really have no idea about death, but they feel a deep loss at the death of a parent. They may sense feelings of grief in others and react to changes in routine and caregivers. Consistent routines and loving caregivers will help relieve anxiety.
Children from two to six years old. Children between the ages of two and six do not understand that death is final. They think death is temporary or reversible. Many children this age seem unaffected by the death of a loved one because they actually believe the person will come back. They may feel like they did something to cause death. It is important for parents to ask questions to determine their sense of responsibility and then to reassure children that this is not true.
Six to nine years old. Around the age of six, most children begin to understand that death is final, even if 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.
Nine to twelve years old. Some children in this age group may still feel responsible for the death. Their comprehension improves and children in this age range can probably handle most information if given carefully.
Teens. By the time children reach adolescence, they probably understand death as well as an adult. 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 up and Nana down. Tomie de Paola
o My grandfather passed away today. Joan Fasler
o The tenth good thing about Barney. Judith Viorst
o Lip Lap’s wish. Jonathan London and Sylvia Long
o Badger Farewell 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 (Guide Series) by 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 Sad Isn’t Bad: A Good-Grief Guidebook for Kids Dealing With Loss (Elf-Help Books for Kids) by Michaelene Mundy
o What 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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