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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Table Talk Thursday: Helping Children Deal with a Death in the Family by Glenda Propst

Between December 2009 and February 2010 we had 7 deaths, either in our circle of friends or our immediate family. Since I have several great nieces and nephews under the age of 10, the topic of talking to children about death was an important one.
When I was a child care center director, we had an adorable little 4 year old girl who stopped taking naps. Her mom (who was the mother of 9) came to me and said “I don’t know what is wrong. Since her Pop Pop died she doesn’t sleep anymore. She isn’t sleeping at night either. I said “When PopPop died what did you tell her?” and she said “I told her PopPop was…………………………..oh my gosh I told her that he was sleeping.” She went home that day and had an honest talk with her daughter about PopPop and her daughter immediately fell asleep because she was simply exhausted.
When dealing with children and death you need to keep it simple and talk to them in concrete terms. Do not lie to children and tell them that Grandma is sleeping or Grandma is an angel now. Children need and deserve honest simple answers to help them cope with the loss of someone they love. Allow children to ask questions and give them honest answers.
It’s a good idea to find out first what they already know or what they think happened. This way you can clarify misinformation. Don’t give them more information than they need to know or more information than they ask for.
When my dad died, my 5 year old charge came to the funeral home and his greatest concern was “Where are Nannypa’s feet?” He thought that when you died they put you in a box and they had to cut off your legs to make you fit. We explained to him that nannypaws feet were still there, he just could not see them. That was enough reassurance for him.
Don’t try to shield children from what is going on. Lying to them only makes them feel less secure. It is an important life lesson for them to learn.
Give them choices and let them make decisions about what they want to do or how they will participate in the memorial service, wake or funeral. Do not force them to do anything that they don’t want to do.
Think about the person who died, what the visitation will be like .Will it be quiet and somber or will there will be lots of relatives and friends that will be talking about happy memories?
This can also effect a child and how they view their first experience with the loss of someone they love.It isn’t just who died, it is also how the death is handled or the life is celebrated that helps to teach children important life lessons.
It is helpful to realize that children understand more as they get older but death can be more serious and dramatic as the children get older and are better able to understand the finality of a death.
A baby or a toddler might sense that you are sad or they may be aware of a change in their schedule but they can’t really understand what is happening and they may have little or no memory of the event .
PreSchoolers may see a death as something that is reversible. For example: If they watch television they might see someone die on one channel and then turn the channel and see them alive in another show, so this sends a mixed message.This is also an age where children have vivid imaginations and might enjoy make believe or fairy tales where the princess falls asleep but the prince’s kiss can wake her. You have to be prepared to answer all kinds of questions.
As the adults in the lives of children it is our job to be in tune to them, listen to them and give them honest answers to their questions in words that they can understand.
School age children can understand that death is final. They have started to learn about the human body and how it works and what it needs to work, so if you can tell them that “Grandpa’s heart didn’t work correctly and medicine couldn’t fix it, so his heart stopped working and he died, a school age child can understand that concept.
Middle School age kids understand that death is final but it might cause them to be angry or frustrated or scared as they cope with their grief.
High School age kids are more likely to retreat within themselves or seek outside sources to help them deal with their grief. This might be a time when they seek out solace and support with their friends or have a greater need to be with their friends. This could also be a time when they turn to alcohol or drugs to help them ease their pain, so again it is important to be available to the children in your life as they process grief.
It is also important to realize that grief is a process and it is not over in a day or a week. Everyone grieves differently.
There are 2 books that I purchased that I felt were very helpful and simple.
The first is one that my employer told me about several years ago. It is called “When Someone Dies” This book is simple and basic and could be used for a child or an adult of any age. It deals with feelings and what you might be thinking as you process the grief or loss.
The second is one that I heard about through the nanny grapevine called “Tear Soup” This one was especially helpful in our family because the main character in the book is named “Grandy” and this is what my sisters grandchildren call her.
There are a lot of wonderful resources on the internet that can help you support a child through a loss.
You might want to consider buying a few of these books so that when the inevitable happens you will be prepared.


janstclair April 29, 2010 at 8:36 AM  

Thanks, Glenda. I hadn't heard of those books.

I also recommend "Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children"

Wishing you well,

Anonymous April 29, 2010 at 9:36 AM  


Your blog was very helpful today! Thank you for your wonderful insights and wisdom.

I will share this this my nannies.

Patti /

Lisa April 29, 2010 at 4:02 PM  

As a former crisis nanny (working in homes with the death of a parent) I applaud you for writing this article. Nannies play many roles in the lives of their charges, and sometime whether we like it or not counseling becomes part of it (whether a child may be in therapy or not.).

I have learned a lot between my charges and volunteering with four different youth bereavement camps.
I would add a link to my list of grief activity books to do with children from one of my websites related to theory of Multiple Intelligence and Grief.

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