ENDING THE LIFECYCLE: DEATH AND DYING
It is very important to make sure we answer specifically what the children ask, no more and no less. Young children can be at a funerals if an adult is fully present for them. They need to be briefed about what they might see such as, “a casket will be put in the ground,” “people may be sad and cry,” and “they will shovel earth on to the grave.” It is important to use a regular voice and use regular vocabulary without euphemisms. Body language is important, therefore the adult communicating with the child will ideally feel comfortable with the subject so that the child can listen. If the adult is too anxious it will make the child unduly anxious about a topic that we all understand is a normal aspect of being alive. Actually, death is one of the only aspects of life we can surely predict will happen at some point-the end of life as we know it.
Once the funeral is over, it is important to try to debrief the experience with the child, “What did you see and notice?” A child should feel free to ask as many questions as they need to, and they may come back to the topic over time as they digest the experience .They may play or act out the funeral, which is how children understand and make meaning of the world. Listening and being fully present is what the children need from us.
Diana Ganger, MSW,-co-founder, Ideal 18.
Rabbi Earl A. Grollman, the pioneer of grief and loss work, explains what children today want to know about grief. He helps with the answers to questions like, Why do people die? When do people die? Will I die? Who will take care of me? and more as he gives simple concrete answers to the questions children have.
Resource by Rabbi Earl A. Grollman
Death is a universal and inevitable process that must be faced by people of all ages. Children who are able to participate with their families after the death of someone they love will be better equipped to understand and manage the emotions of their grief. It is in that spirit that I share some of the most frequently asked questions that have been posed to me. It is important to know that in responding to a child’s question keep in mind:
What does a child need to know and what can they understand?
In early childhood death tends to be magical not so different than a cartoon-dies and comes back to life. In addition mourning is intermittent, a child might spend some time crying and immediately goes and plays and engages with others and then will suddenly remember and ask questions.
Why do people die?
Death is part of life. Every living thing in the world-trees, flowers, animals, and people-dies at the end of life. As it says in the Bible, “To everything there is a season…a time to be born, a time to die.”
When do people die?
People die when their bodies no longer work right. Sometimes people die when they are very old and sick. Other people die because they are very sick. Sometimes accidents such as a car crash cause people to die, even young children and babies.
When will I die?
No one can know when you will die. We hope you will live a long, healthy, happy life and die only when you are very old.
Could you die at any time? Could I?
It’s possible that an accident could cause you or me to die suddenly, but because we are well and healthy, we can expect to live for a long, long time. We can help avoid accidents by being careful when crossing streets, for example, and by fastening our seat belts when riding in a car.
What do dead people do all the time? (Be factual in answering this question.)
We don’t know what dead people do. We do know that when someone dies, their body is usually put in a casket and buried in the earth, or burned in a place called a crematory and the ashes are scattered. The person who is dead cannot see or hear or talk. Death is the end of living.
Can someone die because you wished they were dead?
No. Wishing someone would die cannot make it happen. Nothing you can do or say or think can cause someone to die. Even if you feel you did or said something bad, you were not the cause of your someone’s death.
Is it okay to cry?
Of course. Crying is a natural way of letting go of painful feelings. Tears are part of grieving for boys as well as girls.
I feel bad. Why don’t I cry?
You can feel sad without crying. Sometimes the death of someone you love is so hard to believe that you don’t cry at first. Some children don’t cry because they are afraid their tears will upset their family members. Others don’t cry because they don’t want their friends or schoolmates to know how sad they are. But it’s okay to cry. Grownups cry too. It’s okay not to cry if you don’t feel like it. Grieving is different for each person.
Who will take care of me if my parent(s) die?
If your father dies, for example, you and your mother will still be a family so you will have someone to take care of you. Many parents make sure that someone in the family who loves you will take care of you in the unlikely event that both of your parents die. They do this by making a will, a legal document that says who is to be your guardian.
Should I go to the funeral?
The funeral says, “thank you” and “goodbye” to the person who died even though that person is no longer alive. It is a sharing time with family and friends. By being present you are able to see what happened to that person. You will want to ask the adults what will happen at the funeral and with whom you will be sitting. You might invite your closest friend to come with you. Of course, you should not be forced to attend if you really don’t want to. Most youngsters are glad they went.
How will I feel?
No one can tell you. Each person grieves in a different way. There is no “normal” way. Feelings are neither “good” nor “bad.” There may be all kinds of emotions: anger, loneliness, fear, sadness, unfairness, denial, guilt. Feelings can change from day to day, even from hour to hour. You need to honestly accept and express these emotions with a family member, a counselor, or even a support group. Most of all, just be yourself.
These are but a few of the many questions that children might ask. No doubt, there are lots more. You are the adult who will listen carefully to their concerns and help them through this difficult and sad time.
It’s okay to admit that you don’t have all the answers: no one does. Even as you share with your children, you will gain fresh insights for yourself. In other words, before you can explain death to children, you have to begin to explain it yourself.
Feel Free to Feel
Feelings are not good. Feelings are not bad. They are your feelings. Feel free to feel.
I’ll say to grieving kids, I don’t know how you’re feeling. That’s how I begin. I tell them, if you feel sad, or mad, scared, and so on, this is the way many people in your situation may be feeling. And if you feel this way, it’s okay. But I don’t tell anyone that this is how they should feel.
Ideal 18 recommends finding literature to support conversations around death and dying. These books are appropriate at any time as it prepares children for the inevitable encounters they will have in life. The more exposed they are in a normative way, the more resilient they will be.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of titles.
Children’s books about death and dying:
- “The Dead Bird” by Margaret Wise Brown.
- “Everett Anderson’s Goodbye” by Lucille Clifton.
- “The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story of Life for All Ages” by Leo Buscaglia.
- “Jim’s Dog Muffins” by Miriam Cohen.
- “Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children” by Bryan Mellonie.
- “Love Never Stops: A Memory Book for Children” by Emilio Parga.
- “Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs” by Tomie DePaola.
- “The Next Place” by Warren Hanson.