A Death in the Family: Helping Young Children Understand
Supporting children and their families as they cope with the death of someone close to them is never easy.
Recently, an early childhood educator reached out to the NAEYC community for resources and ideas to support two young children who each had experienced the death of a family member. As I watched this sharing of ideas unfold, I was reminded of my own experience losing my grandfather when I was 7 years old, and I thought about how useful these resources would have been to me and my family.
On Christmas Eve morning, 1977, I was downstairs in our family room watching Saturday cartoons while my mom was upstairs baking desserts to take to Christmas lunch at her parents’ house the next day. The heavy black rotary phone in the basement rang. I ran excitedly to pick up the phone, as I tended to do. I remember being confused, thinking, Why is Mom talking like that? Is she crying? What is she saying? She’s hard to understand through the tears.
I soon learned that my maternal grandfather had died suddenly of a heart attack that morning. As an adult looking back, I see that moment’s significance, its long shadow. But at the time and during the days and weeks that followed, I remember just feeling confused. And the confusion remained through much of my grade school years. Christmas became a sad time for my grandmother and my mom. My grandmother often cried at Christmas, and Christmas Eve was always bittersweet for my mother.
I have another distinct memory: I couldn’t cry. At the funeral, adult voices reassured me that “it’s okay to cry, Mikie. See, your big cousin Chris is crying.” I was reminded of this tangle of emotions and blurred memories as I viewed the recent thread of resources on Hello for helping children cope with death.
It occurs to me that at the time, I couldn’t quite grasp what my grandfather’s death meant to my family members. I had a child’s understanding of his death, and it was okay that I couldn’t share the adults’ responses; my understanding fit my age. I wonder now if I didn’t cry because in part I didn’t really comprehend the permanence of death.
I did understand some of what death signified—after all, Sammy, our old beagle, was buried in the backyard, and that meant I couldn’t cuddle with him ever again because dead meant gone forever. But I couldn’t quite grasp what this special person’s death meant. I needed someone to sit and talk with me, to figure out what I understood and what I didn’t, and to help me cope with my feelings in ways that made sense for a young child.
In retrospect, I wonder what it would have been like if the adults around me had had resources to help them think about a 7-year-old’s comprehension of death. What would it have been like if they had shared with me children’s books from our local library to help me process the loss?
On the discussion thread, NAEYC members have recommended many children's books and resources to help children who experience the death of a loved one. If you ever need to support a child at such a time, I encourage you to refer to this list of resources.
At my grandfather's funeral, I wish the adults around me had had a copy of Grief Is a Mess, by Jackie Schuld, because its emphasis on the personal nature of grieving would have let me know it was okay that I wasn’t quite in the same place as the grown-ups around me—that not crying was OK.
The Heart and the Bottle, by Oliver Jeffers, would have been useful later, when I began to understand that Grandpa wouldn’t be there when I went to visit, working in his garage, listening to those funny old classical records. That book might have helped me make sense of the hurt I felt with that realization. It might have been a good time for me and my parents to read Pat Thomas’s I Miss You: A First Look at Death, which asks useful interactive questions to help children understand what all of this means.
And I wish someone had pointed my parents toward a book like Talking about Death: A Dialogue between Parent and Child, by Earl Grollman, which gives advice not only on how to approach the subject honestly, but also on how to do so carefully and openly. It includes a section that families can read aloud together with their children.
Helping children and their families cope with the death of someone close is never easy. But these books—and the many, many other books and resources shared in the Hello thread on the topic—are tools to help children begin to process and talk about their complicated feelings during such a tough time.
Many thanks to Leeann from California, Meg from North Carolina, and Jacqueline from Arizona, whose book suggestions I integrated above.
Michael Coventry is Director, Digital Strategy and Interest Forum Program at NAEYC.