Helping Young Children Grieve and Understand Death
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Whether you teach in a nature preschool or not, questions about death are likely to arise—and some children will experience losses (family members, friends, pets) and go through the grieving process while they are in your classroom. While Dani Porter Born’s article helps teachers address death as part of learning about life cycles and nature, teachers should also prepare themselves for basic questions (like whether or not a dead animal feels cold) and for supporting children and their families after a loved one dies.
—Young Children Editors
The death of someone close can be both confusing and overwhelming for children. If they don’t already understand what happens when someone dies, it becomes more difficult to cope with a personal loss. Children’s misunderstandings may unnecessarily increase their senses of guilt or shame, or exacerbate their fears and worries. If we help young children understand death through exposure to nature when they aren’t emotionally attached to an animal that has died, we prepare them to understand and cope with a personal loss at a later time.
Children who understand the following four concepts will be better prepared to cope with a loss:
- Death is irreversible. An essential first step in the mourning process is understanding and accepting that a loss is permanent. Understanding that death is irreversible allows children to begin to mourn, rather than wait for the person who has died to return.
- All life functions end completely at the time of death. Very young children initially view all things (toys, rocks, cars) as alive. As they grow older, children come to understand that inanimate objects are not alive, but they may still be confused at times: for example, children may not view plants as alive since plants don’t appear to move. Preschool children often don’t understand what life functions are; therefore, they may not realize that all life functions end at death. They may assume a person who has died can feel afraid, cold, hungry, or lonely. Understanding that all life functions completely end with death helps children realize the person who died is not suffering.
- Everything that is alive eventually dies. If children don’t see death as inevitable, they may wonder why a particular death occurred. Often they conclude it is because of something bad they did or something they failed to do. This can lead to guilt. They may also believe it is because of something the deceased did or didn’t do. This can lead to shame. Understanding that all living things eventually die makes it less likely that children will associate death with guilt or shame.
- There are physical reasons someone dies. Adults can help children understand the physical cause of a death by being brief and using simple language at a developmentally appropriate level. Understanding the physical reasons behind a death helps minimize possible confusion and feelings of guilt or shame children may experience.
Most children grasp these concepts by 5 to 7 years of age, but sometimes they do so at significantly younger ages if they have experienced a personal loss. Early childhood educators can help children learn these concepts through classroom discussions, such as responding to naturally occurring deaths of classroom pets or dead animals found in nature. Older children usually understand the four concepts more fully, but they are also likely to have questions about them when a death touches them in some way. They may wonder if they were responsible or worry that others they care about will die soon. Understanding the concepts is different from accepting them in the context of a personal loss—but understanding is a necessary precondition to acceptance.
Children of any age may find comfort in their family’s faith-based beliefs (such as what happens to a person’s spirit after death). However, some religious concepts may be too abstract for young children, causing confusion. In addition to a family’s faith-based beliefs, it is important for children to understand the physical realities about what happens to the body. Teachers can encourage children who ask faith-based questions about death to discuss their questions with family members.
Check children’s understanding
When adults discuss death with children, they often choose words they feel are gentler. However, less direct terms may be confusing. If children hear someone who died is in a state of eternal sleep, for example, they may be afraid to go to sleep. Especially with younger children, it’s important to use the terms dead and died.
It’s useful to check children’s understanding of the four concepts about death. These steps may be helpful:
- Start by asking children what they understand about death.
- Give children simple and developmentally appropriate explanations.
- Ask children to explain back to you what they understand.
- Correct any misunderstandings or misconceptions.
These steps will help make any misunderstandings clear. For example, when children are told that the body may be placed in a casket, they may decline to attend the funeral. They may assume the head will be placed somewhere else and may not want to see a loved one decapitated.
These four checks for understanding—and the four concepts—will also be useful for children with intellectual disabilities. Their understanding of the concepts will usually be on a level commensurate with their level of general cognitive functioning. Even if they cannot fully comprehend the concepts or communicate their understanding, they are likely to be deeply affected by a close personal loss and will benefit from efforts to help them better understand.
Talking with children
It’s important to remember that a child’s grief and pain are caused by the death—not by talking about it. Here are some steps for starting a conversation about the death of a family member, friend, or pet:
- Express concern. Let children know you’ve heard about their loss and are available to listen and offer support.
- Be genuine. Children can tell when adults are authentic in their communications. For example, don’t tell a child you will miss her uncle if you did not know him. Do tell the child you are sad because she has experienced this loss.
- Invite the conversation. Use simple, direct, open-ended questions. For example, ask, “How are you and your family doing?”
- Listen and observe. Listen more and talk less. Share observations about children’s behavior or responses with their family members in a nonjudgmental manner.
- Limit personal sharing. You can draw on personal experiences to help you better understand children, but you do not need to share this with them. Stay focused on the child’s experience and reactions.
- Offer practical advice to respond to classmates. For example, discuss ways to respond to questions about a death from peers or adults.
- Offer reassurance. Without minimizing their concerns, let children know that over time they will be better able to cope with their distress, and that you will be there to help them.
- Maintain contact. At first, children may not accept your invitation to talk or your offers of support. Remain accessible, concerned, and connected.
What not to say
Understanding what not to say to children who are grieving can help educators be more confident and effective when reaching out to their students. Many common and well-intentioned statements are not helpful to grieving children and their families. Here are some examples of comments to avoid and suggestions for what to say instead.
“I know what you’re going through.” You cannot know this; everyone’s experience of grief is unique.
Say this instead: “Can you tell me more about what this has been like for you?”
“This is hard. But it’s important to remember the good things in life, too.” This kind of statement is likely to suppress true expressions of grief. When people are grieving, it’s important they be allowed to experience and express whatever feelings, memories, or wishes they’re having.
Say this instead: “What kinds of memories do you have about [the person who died]?”
“My dog died last week. I know how you must be feeling.” It is not useful to compare losses. Stay focused on the experiences and reactions of grieving children and their families.
Say this instead: “I know how I’ve felt when someone I loved died, but I don’t really know how you’re feeling. Can you tell me something about what this has been like for you?”
Overall, it is important to keep in mind that different ways of grieving are to be expected. Families from different cultures may follow specific traditions, rituals, and practices after a death, but the fundamental experience of grief is universal. Teachers can aspire to achieve a general sensitivity to the unique needs of children and families coping with loss.
To learn more about how to discuss death and grieving with children, visit the Coalition to Support Grieving Students website at grievingstudents.org. There, you will find informative modules on developmental and cultural considerations, reactions and triggers, crises and special circumstances, self-care, and much more. Free written materials for educators, parents, and other caring adults about how to support grieving children can also be downloaded or ordered.
Adapted with permission from the Coalition to Support Grieving Students (www.grievingstudents.org).
Photograph © Getty Images
David J. Schonfeld, MD, is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician and is founder and director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement (www.schoolcrisiscenter.org) at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. He is also professor of clinical pediatrics at Keck School of Medicine of USC. firstname.lastname@example.org