Posted Jun 08, 2007.
Explaining death to young children and helping them with feelings of grief can be a difficult task, especially when parents are also grieving. When adults are struggling with grief, they may try to protect children by leaving them out of discussions and rituals. When this happens, children often feel even more confused and alone.
Understanding PreschoolersPreschool children usually see death as temporary and reversible. “When is Grandpa coming back?” They also are very literal. One child thought her grandmother must be in the attic because the adults always looked up when they spoke of her. Children understand what they can see. It is sometimes helpful to show a dead plant, bird or bug to help explain death to young children. Children’s books can also be helpful in explaining death and dealing with grief.
Fears and questions are commonYoung children may ask, “Will I die too?”, “If I go to sleep will I be dead?”, and when a parent or caregiver has died, “Who will take care of me now?” Preschoolers also tend to think from their own perspective, which may lead them to think it is somehow their fault. “I was mad at grandpa and wanted him to go away.” These are common fears of children. Listen and reassure your preschooler. You may want to say, “When people have lived a long time their bodies grow old and die. It is okay to cry and be sad because we miss them.” Children will often ask the same question many times in their effort to understand death and grief. Try to be patient and give honest simple answers.
Sometimes children ‘Talk’ with ActionsPreschool children who experience grief often return to behaviors they had outgrown. It is normal to see bedwetting and accidents, fearful nights, thumbsucking or crying and clinging. Young children aren’t usually able to talk about how they feel, so their feelings come out in actions. Be patient, these are just temporary setbacks. What about funerals? Young children should not be forced to attend a funeral. They should not be forbidden either. Explain to children what to expect and what will be expected of them. If there will be highly emotional reactions, it’s a good idea to explain why people are so upset. An adult who can help and comfort the child should stay close by. This may need to be someone other than a parent, if parents are dealing with their own grief. If attending the funeral does not seem like a good idea, include the child in other rituals, such as putting flowers on the grave later, planting a tree in memory or looking at photographs. It is better to teach children about death before your family experiences a loss.
Children’s books to read with your child:Lifetimes, The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children, by B. Mellonie and R. Ingpen
The Tenth Good Thing about Barney by Judith ViorstWhat’s Heaven by Maria Shriver
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