When Someone Dies – How to Help Young Children Through Their Grief
Over the years, I never needed to deal with death very much in my family child care home. Grandparents would die but many lived far away, so the loss was not so profound to the children in my group, who were ages 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 asleep.” The little boy looked up 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 do know about death but we must help them deal with this natural process.
My adult nephew, Chris, had Muscular Dystrophy and he lived with me for many years. He became a very important part of my daycare children’s lives. He would give them rides on his wheelchair, read to them, play his music for them to dance to and sneak candy to them when I wasn’t looking! Many of the parents said they chose my program partly because they liked the fact that their child would have a relationship with a person with a disability. One mother told me that her family was at an amusement park one day and someone, using a wheelchair, passed by. Most of the children ran away from this man but her little boy ran up to him and said, “Hi! You have a wheelchair just like my friend, Chris”
Chris became ill and he died suddenly, in his sleep, one Saturday morning. I called all the parents and told them that Chris had died. I closed my daycare on Monday so I could make funeral arrangements. It was only then that I realized I’d have to help the children understand this death while I was handling my own grief.
I reopened my daycare on Tuesday, although many of my friends said I should take the week off to grieve. I just felt it would help all of us to be together sooner. Tuesday morning, I sat in our playroom and told the children that Chris died and he would not come back. Then we went into 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 isn’t 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 a few of the books that he had read to them. I even gave them some candy from his 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 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 seem real so I began to push them around the house in his chair. They had never done that before so it was a signal that things were different now. I also put some of his shirts and hats in the dress up area and placed a picture of him among their pictures on our wall. We also read several picture books about death during that time. The older children dictated stories and drew pictures of Chris. The families were invited to Chris’ memorial gathering and the children wrote messages to Chris, tied them to balloons and released them.
The younger children didn’t understand the loss; however, they did, however sense that something was different and that I was grieving. One day, a one year old who was not usually very cuddly, threw himself into my lap and hugged me as I sat on the floor missing Chris. He seemed to know that I needed that hug. One six-year-old said matter-of-factly, “I guess we won’t be seeing Chris here anymore. Who’s gonna take his place?” as he noted how the loss would affect us all. My 3-year-old niece, Chris’ cousin and Goddaughter, asked why I was teary-eyed one day. I said I was sad and that I missed Chris. She said, “I do too! I wish he would come back.” All I could say was “I do too!”
Here are some ideas to help with this very emotional, human experience.
o Be honest and use words such as “died” not “went to sleep.” Children are very literal and they may fear going to sleep because they may also die. Answer their question honestly according to 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 are feeling.
o Talk about the loved one to keep the memory alive for them. Put up pictures, tell stories and look at picture albums. The love and memories never do 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 understand death in different ways and need special considerations.
Infants to two year olds. They really do not have a concept of death but they feel a profound loss upon the death of a parent. They can sense feelings of grief in others and react to changes in routine and caregivers. Consistent routines and loving caregivers will help ease anxiety.
Two to six year olds. Children between the ages of two and six do not understand that death is final. They think death is something temporary or reversible. Many children this age don’t seem affected by the death of a loved one because they actually believe that the person will return. They may feel that they did something to cause the death. It’s important for parents to ask questions to determine feelings of responsibility and then to reassure the children that this is not true.
Six to nine year olds. Around the age of six, most children begin to understand that death is final, though this understanding is not complete. They may see death as something that happens only to old people or other people. Children may not be able to accept the fact that death happens to everyone.
Nine to twelve year olds. Some children in this age group may still feel responsible for the death. Their understanding is increasing and children in this age range can probably handle most of the information if given carefully.
Teens. By the time children reach the teenage years, they probably understand death as well as an adult. Even though they have this understanding, they still need lots of support from 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 Upstairs and Nana Downstairs. Tomie de Paola
o My Grandpa 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 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 (Guidebook Series) by Dougy Center for Grieving Children
o Help Me Say Goodbye: Activities for Helping 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 on Earth Do You Do When Someone Dies? by Trevor Romain
o After Charlotte’s Mom Died (Hardcover) by Cornelia Spelman, Judith Friedman