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Helping Children Deal With Death

Victor Parachin

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

*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.

*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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