Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Death, Dying & Grief: How to Help Kids

I believe one of life's most difficult challenges (even as an adult) is accepting and coping with death, and grappling with our own immortality. For children, coming to terms with the loss of a someone or something close to them can be confusing and hard to comprehend. Throw into this process the idea of reincarnation, heaven, hell, etc., and it can become even more abstract and thought-provoking.

One of the rewarding aspects of being a counselor is getting to answer kids' questions about all sorts of topics. More often than not, they involve friendships and family matters, but occasionally the subject of death and dying comes up. One session that I had last year with one of our grade 5 girl's, really sticks out, because she and her family had just experienced the sudden loss of a close and young family member.  It is during these times, that I feel especially vulnerable, even as a counselor, because it's sometimes difficult to find just the right words to say. Any adult that has been to a funeral or wake can understand this feeling of, "Whatever I am going to say is NOT going to make a difference."

However, I really believe that, out of tragedy, comes opportunities to build closer connections with those around you. Specifically, life's toughest moments offer the chance to have meaningful conversations with loved ones, especially children, who may need this valuable dialogue to know how to conceptualize what has occurred. Death is, inevitably, something that all children will face, and it's important that parents know how to talk to their kids about this. It helps to remember that, based on age and development, children have varying ideas about death and dying, to include it's permanence. Each child is unique, therefore, there is no "one size fits all" approach, but here are some great resources and ideas for talking to kids about death. The following information was taken from healthychildren.org.

Infants & toddlers
Infants and toddlers do not understand death, but they can sense what their caregiver is experiencing. Take care of yourself and recognize your own need to grieve. Keep as many routines as possible intact, as these allow the child to feel more safe and secure by knowing what to expect. Giving extra physical attention to comfort your child and may also be beneficial during this time. 

Preschoolers (Ages 3-5)

Preschoolers see death as something temporary. Because young children are concrete thinkers, it is important that they are told about death in simple, clear language. Do not use euphemisms like, "She has gone to sleep," "…traveled to the great beyond," or "…passed away." 
Instead, young children should be told that their loved one has died and "that means we will no longer be able to see her." You can explain that, sometimes when old people become very sick, their bodies may stop working, and that is when people die. If it is a younger person that passed away, a similar explanation can be given. Be prepared for young children to continue to ask where the deceased is or when they are coming back. Give clear messages, but balance this out with discussions about memories you have with this particular person, and that these will remain forever. For young children, using solely religious explanations may be ineffective because they need much more concrete, specific explanations about the physical realities of death.
Because young children can't always express their feelings, their thoughts and fears often will come out at unexpected times, like in their play. Play can be the language of childhood, so remain alert to what kids may be trying to tell you through their play.

School-aged children (Ages 6-11)

School-aged children begin to understand death as a final event and will begin to realize that everyone dies someday. Give your child simple and honest explanations (e.g., "Aunt May had a disease that made her very sick, and she died.") about what happened and then ask her what she understands. Give children repeated opportunities to talk about their feelings. 
Younger school-aged children also may not yet understand the causality of death. It is common for them to personify death (i.e., think of death as the "boogeyman" or a ghost). They may believe they are to blame and feel guilty for what happened. Assure them that nothing they said or did (or didn't say or do) caused the death and that nothing they do can bring the deceased back.
Children may also worry that they will be left alone, especially by the death of a significant adult. They may also ask you about when you're going to die. Don't be surprised if your child becomes cuddlier, more watchful, and more possessive of your time.
  • Remind your child that not everyone who gets sick will die, and most often the body heals itself
  • Reassure her of your health
  • Let her know how many people in his life care for her.
  • Encourage and facilitate opportunities for you, your child and family to engage in fun activities that can be a distraction during difficult times
  • Take care of yourself and make sure you have support 
In the tragic event of a loss of a parent, sibling, or very close family member, keeping this person's memory alive is invaluable in order to help children cope. Photo albums, special mementos or items belonging to the deceased can serve as a great source of comfort for children experiencing this more extreme kind of grief. Often, I have children complete picture books depicting fond memories or images they have in their mind about that particular person. As they draw, I will ask questions, but more often prefer to listen to them discuss their pictures. Enclosed are additional activities from pbs.org, which has many helpful resources for grieving families. Ahaparenting also offers some good advice.  
Furthermore, as with most other topics, books can often be wonderful in teaching children about death and dying. Here are many examples of literature which explores this experience and prompt conversations about it, in addition to books I've found that have gotten very favorable reviews ("God Gave Us Heaven," by Lisa T. Begren and Laura J. Bryant;  "I Miss You," by Pat Thomas; &  "The Invisible String," by Patrice Karst). The books depicted below are available in my office for parents to borrow.

Lastly, if you feel like you need a bit of assistance discussing the death of someone in your child's life, please do not hesitate to reach out. Even if it means letting your daughter know that I am available if they need to speak with me, or to "normalize" the grieving process for them (because, as adults, we've all gone through this, to varying extents), I am happy to help.

~Ms. Carnright

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