After reading Jo’s comment the other day about how to speak to and reassure a child about death, I did some reading and spoke to several people about how to reply to Jo’s comment. One of those people was my brother-in-law Henri. Henri has at different times left very wise comments here on the blog. On hearing of Jo’s question and possibly reading it Henri went out and did some research on his own on this very subject. I thank you Henri. This is what he emailed me:
Talking to Children about Death
FS-441 (Revised), April 1995
Helen Danielson, Child Development Specialist
Living with Death
Death is a reality that children, like all of us, can learn to live with.
Even before the death of a close family member occurs, parents can begin to introduce the idea of death as a part of everyday life. The nightly news, a trip past the cemetery, or a dead plant or bird may spark conversation about death.
Start early, be honest and encourage children to talk about their feelings regarding death.
Periodic conversations about death are important since understanding death is a gradual process. Children will take in the information as they are ready and increase their understanding as they develop.
Children feel the loss of loved ones just as intensely as adults do, although this grief is often expressed in different ways: through play, art or even acting out.
Children will cope with grief according to the stressors created by their relationship to the person (or animal) who has died.
Ages and Stages
Newborn to 3 Years
Even the youngest of children sense when their family routine is disrupted and those around them experience emotional upset. However, infants and toddlers have little understanding of death.
How to help:
Ages 3 – 6 Years
Typically, a child will not understand that death is permanent. The child may think of it as temporary or magically reversible, or may even appear to be unaffected. Fears that dead people may be cold or hungry in the grave are common.
How to help:
Ages 6 – 9 Years
A child this age may view death as something that comes and takes people away or can be caught like a cold.
Some children may still think the dead person will return. Guilt may make a child feel responsible for the death through her own wishful thinking (I wish he would die!), harsh words (You’ll be the death of me yet.) or not doing something (I didn’t help Grandpa mow the lawn. Now he died.). Fears related to death may arise.
How to help:
Ages 9 – 12 Years
Preteens have a better understanding of the permanence of death. Some children in this age range may appear to be unaffected by death on the surface. They may see death as a punishment for bad deeds.
How to help:
Teens have an adult-like understanding of the finality of death and realization that everyone will die. They may inappropriately assume responsibility for adult concerns, such as family and financial well-being.
Teens may assume the roles of the deceased person or deny feelings and express anger which creates added pain.
May feel confused, responsible, helpless, angry, sad, lonely, afraid or guilty.
How to help:
Should young children go to the funeral home?
Yes, if they are prepared for what they will see, who will be there, how people may be feeling and what they will be doing. For young children, be specific in your descriptions of what the surroundings will look like. For example, describe the casket and clothes and that the body will be lying still, not able to breathe or talk. Answer questions and encourage the child to go with you. Bring along someone to care for the child if you are distraught.
Going to the funeral home:
Should young children attend the funeral or memorial service?
Yes, funerals and memorial services provide needed rituals. But children of any age should not be forced to participate. Other rituals that may be helpful include remembering the loved one’s birthday and reviewing photos and keepsakes to be reminded of the loved one.
Although children of varying ages have differences, there are common threads.
Books Dealing with Death
Nana Upstairs, Nana Downstairs by Tomie De Paola. Young Tommie learns what it is like to be young and old, very old, and finally to die by visiting his grandmother and great-grandmother. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1973
The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst. A young boy learns to deal with the death of his cat by remembering all the good things about him. Antheneum, New York, 1971
Badger’s Parting Gifts by Susan Varley. Badger’s friends are sad when he dies, but they treasure the legacies he left them. Mulberry Books, 1984
Saying Goodbye to Daddy by Judith Vigna. Frightened, angry and lonely after her father is killed in a car accident, Clare is helped through the grieving process by her mother and grandmother. Albert Whitman, 1991
Grover by Vera and Bill Cleaver. Grover attempts to deal with the death of his mother and the changes her death has made in his life. J.B. Lippincott Co., 1970
A Taste of Blackberries by Doris B. Smith. A story told from the child’s perspective about a young boy who loses his friend, including the two boys’ relationship, the accident and the ambulance, the rituals involved from the visitation to the graveside service, and how the young boy begins to make sense of the death and learns to go on with his life. Rinehart and Winston, 1983
When a Friend Dies: A book for teens about grieving and healing by Marilyn E. Gootman. Furnishes teens with important information on understanding grief. Free Spirit Publishing, 1994
Death is Hard to Live With by Janet Bode. Teenagers talk about how they cope with loss. Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing, 1993
How Do We Tell Children? by Dan Schaefer and Christine Lyons. Designed for adults to help children better understand and cope when someone dies. Newmarket Press, 1988 revised
Good Answers to Tough Questions by Joy Berry. Answers to tough questions children may have about death. Children’s Press
April 1995 (Reviewed and reprinted April 1996)
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