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Help children understand that death is part of the cycle of life

Children today have more indirect contact with death through television and movies, but less direct, real contact. The media rarely depicts the prolonged pain, tears, and grief that accompany the loss of someone we care about. And although we are a society that doesn't seem to mind watching someone die in the movies or on television, we have a strong aversion to discussing death in real life. So how can children learn to deal with this life reality?

Death and disability can occur at any age. Talking with children – not in a morbid way, but in a matter-of-fact way – to explore the idea of death is important to helping them understand and cope when it does touch their life.

The death of a grandparent is often a child's first experience with death. This can be more difficult for a child than we might think; after all, the grand-parent/grandchild bond is second in emotional importance only to the parent/child bond. Because of gains in longevity, many grandchildren will be exposed to both grandparents' and great-grandparents' frailty and eventual deaths.

Most children aged five years and older need to say good-bye to someone they love if they are ill or dying, and they need help dealing with their feelings when they lose that person.

Children must first understand that there is a cycle to life – that everything is born, lives, and dies. Two excellent books for exploring the cycle of life are The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story of Life for All Ages by Leo Buscaglia and Beginnings and Endings with Lifetimes in Between by Bryan Mellonie.

Other storybooks that can be used to explore the illness and death of a grandparent: The Two of Them by Aliki; The Magpie Song by Laurence Anholt; Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs by Tomie dePaola; Annie and the Old One by Miska Miles; Gus and Grandpa at the Hospital by Claudia Mills; Grandpa Abe by Marisabina Russo; Badger's Parting Gifts by Susan Varley; The Language of Doves by Rosemary Wells; Old Pig by Margaret Wild; Dance on a Sealskin by Barbara Winslow; Grandad Bill's Song by Jane Yolen.

Two nonfiction books that can help a child deal with the loss of someone they love are What on Earth Do You Do When Someone Dies? by Trevor Romain and Muddles, Puddles and Sunshine: Your Activity Book to Help When Someone Has Died by Winston's Wish.

Living With the End in Mind
by Erin Tierney Kramp and Douglas H. Kramp and How Do We Tell the Children? by Dan Schaefer and Christine Lyons are two good books for adults who want to help a child prepare for and/or deal with a loss.

If you're willing to talk about the hard stuff, children are too. If you're grieving the loss of a friend or relative, it's okay to let children see some of your pain. Sharing your feelings builds closeness. Some other tips for helping a child when someone they care about dies:

  • Children can talk about life realities – like death and illness – as long as adults approach them calmly and don't overload them with information or opinions. Tell a child simply and directly that a grandparent, for example, has died. For example: "A very, very sad thing has happened. Grandma was very, very old, her body was very sick, and it stopped working and won't work anymore."
  • Use examples from the child's experience, like the death of a pet.
  • Many children don't fully understand the concept of death until about age 8 or 9. Before that, they think of death as a kind of going away. Even if a child doesn't completely understand, they still feel the loss of not seeing the person they love.
  • Reassure a child that the person who has died is in no pain; that death is not a punishment but a natural thing that happens to everyone; that they had nothing to do with the death; that death is not contagious; and that they are loved.
  • Family members should talk openly about their feelings, and let a child know their feelings are okay (e.g. crying is okay for everyone – boys too). Don't force discussion, but encourage it. Let a child know that they can ask questions about the things they don't understand. They may ask the same question over and over; answer it again and again.
  • If a grandparent passes away, a child may be afraid that a parent will die, or that they will die if they catch a cold. Explain the difference between old (parent's age) and very, very old (grandparent's age), and sick (which can be cured) and very sick (which can't).
  • Children may respond by crying, being anxious or withdrawn, or having headaches, stomachaches, or nightmares. They may find comfort in carrying around a photograph, or taking a piece of clothing to bed. At the same time, children will be children. They will play and laugh. They aren't being disrespectful; they're just being children.
  • A child needs a way to say good-bye. Parents may want to give the child the choice of attending a funeral or other service. They should know what to expect at the service. If a child doesn't attend a formal service, you might want to encourage them to plan their own service, in which the family can participate.
  • Help a child work through their feelings by writing a letter to the person who has died, picking flowers, putting together a photo album, or making a special "remembering box" of mementos. They can also use play to work through feelings. For example, they may have a stuffed animal or doll that "dies," which they then bury.
  • The entire family should share memories about the person you loved. Remember the good times. Look at old photos or videos, and tell stories about the person. Celebrate the person's life and the legacy they've left. The family may also want to create a Life Statement to honor the person's memory.

© SV Bosak, www.legacyproject.org