Helping Children Deal With Death

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“Grief forced underground can emerge months or years later to
haunt and hurt the child.”

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*During the night, a fire breaks out in a home. The parents
manage to carry out two of their three children. When the blaze is
extinguished, the body of their 2-year-old daughter is found. The
parents and their surviving 5- and 8-year-old children are
devastated. “We lost our baby today,” the father cries to
reporters.

*In a quiet neighborhood, a car strikes a boy on his bicycle.
The child was only 12 years old. Along with his parents, survivors
include a 6-year-old brother.

*An 11-year-old girl is fatally shot, the victim of gang
violence. Her parents and two siblings are left in shock wondering
how this could happen to them.

These are not fabricated events. They took place in one
community during the last few months. At some point, all children
are forced to cope with death. Whether death strikes a family
member or friend, whether the death takes place when the child is
in preschool or high school, death’s impact can last a lifetime.
Like adults, children need to know the biblical truth: “Weeping may
remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” Here are
ways to minister to grieving children.

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*Identify each child’s level of understanding. The amount of
information, degree of detail, and the language used concerning a
death should vary with the developmental stage of each child.
Children under 2 have very little understanding of death. Between 2
and 6, children display magical thinking. For them death is
reversible. They’ll ask when the dead person is coming home again.
From ages 6 through 9, children comprehend the finality of death
but will often regress to magical thinking. Children over 9 acquire
a more mature understanding of death and realize it’s
irreversible.

*Use simple, concrete language. Younger children view their
world literally, as in the case of a 6-year-old whose grandfather
died. “Everybody’s been talking about granddad’s body being at the
funeral home,” the boy said. “I thought that when you died, they
must cut off your head.” Use only basic and simple concepts to
explain death.

*Avoid euphemisms. Metaphors and euphemisms confuse children. A
child who is told, “Grandmother is sleeping” will be afraid to fall
asleep and never awaken. Or a child who hears, “We lost daddy
today” can waste great emotional energy hoping her father will
someday be found.

*Stop, look, and listen. After a death, give a grieving child
undivided attention when feelings connected to bereavement emerge.
Let a child express sadness, anger, or guilt. Grief forced
underground can emerge months or years later to haunt and hurt the
child. “The child’s feelings and concerns should take precedence
over almost everything else,” advises child therapist Claudia
Jarratt in her book Helping Children Cope With Separation and Loss.
“As soon as the child tries to share feelings, stop what you are
doing immediately (or as soon as you can) and focus on the
child.”

*Give ample reassurance. Children’s grief is colored by fear.
They fear abandonment. They fear that they too will die. They fear
they may have caused the death. When a parent has died, they fear
the other parent will die also. Children need constant, loving
reassurance that the surviving family will remain intact.

*Be a role model. Death and grief give you a unique opportunity
to be a role model for children. Be emotionally genuine about your
grief. “It is almost impossible to put up a false front
successfully,” says psychologist Julius Segal. “Kids can discern
when we are bereft even though we try mightily to hide it. Words
cannot mask what lies in the heart; and when the two are dissonant,
the mixed signals can increase the mystery and fears surrounding
death.”

*Emphasize God’s love. Faith can be a great source of comfort to
a child. Unfortunately, adults often misstate God’s role in a death
and thereby confuse, rather than comfort, a child. For example,
Helen Fitzgerald, a counselor and author of The Grieving Child,
notes the confusion surrounding the phrase, “It’s all part of God’s
plan.” “What plan?” Fitzgerald asks. “Is it part of God’s plan to
have a mother killed by a plane dropping on top of her car (this
actually happened)? Most parents want to teach children that God is
a loving God, not a God that allows airplanes to fall on cars.”
Rather than speaking about God’s will and plan with a child,
emphasize God’s love. Love is a concept that appeals to even the
youngest child. Children can be reminded gently, “God loves us and
wants to help us. We can bring all of our fears and concerns to God
in prayer. God will help us.” By responding sensitively to
children, you’ll ensure they develop the coping skills they need to
understand, manage, and respond to loss. Take time to help children
cope with death, and make it possible for them to have a healthy
bereavement. Victor Parachin is a free-lance writer in
Virginia.

BOOKS ABOUT DEATH The following are excellent, age-appropriate
books for children. *It Must Hurt a Lot by Doris Sanford
(Multnomah). The feelings a child experiences when a favorite pet
dies.

*My Mom Is Dying: A Child’s Diary by Jill McNamara (Augsburg). A
child’s perspective on her mother’s terminal illness and death.

*Morgan’s Baby Sister by Patricia Johnson and Donna Williams
(Resource Publications). For families who’ve experienced the death
of a newborn sibling.

 

WHAT TO SAY Here are simple, concrete ways to explain a death to
a child:

*Suicide-”Sometimes people feel very sad. They’re so unhappy
they don’t want to live anymore, so they kill themselves. But
killing yourself is never a good thing to do if you’re feeling
bad.”

*Accident-”Something awful happened. Two cars struck each other
and John died. His body was hurt so badly it stopped working.”

*Terminal illness-”Some people who get sick just don’t get
better. Instead they get sicker and sicker until their bodies get
worn out and stop working.”

*Old age-”After people have lived a very long time and get old,
their bodies wear out and stop working.”

*Miscarriage or stillbirth-”Sometimes, but not very often, when
a baby is growing inside its mother, something goes wrong. The baby
stops growing and dies. We don’t always understand why it happens,
but it does. It’s not anyone’s fault.”

*Murder-”Sometimes things happen in life-terrible things that we
can’t stop. Today a person whose mind was not working right killed
Carrie. That is the worst thing a person can do. It is wrong and
can make us very angry.”

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