My 6 Year Old Says She Wishes She Was Dead When Someone Dies – How to Help Young Children Through Their Grief

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When Someone Dies – How to Help Young Children Through Their Grief

Over the years, I never really had to deal with death in my family’s childcare home. Grandparents died but many lived far away, so the loss was not so great for the children in my group, who were between 6 months and 6 years old. Once a 3 year old gave me a dead bug. Not knowing what to say, I said, “Maybe he’s sleeping.” The little boy looked at me with as much seriousness as a 3 year old can muster and said, “No, Lynnie, he’s dead.” It was then that I realized that children know about death but we have to help them to deal with this natural process.

My adult brother, Chris, had Muscular Dystrophy and lived with me for many years. It became a very important part of my day care children’s lives. He would give them rides on his wheelchair, read to them, play music for them to dance to and give them candy when I wasn’t looking! Many of the parents said that they chose my program in part because they liked that their child would have a relationship with a person with a disability. One mother told me that her family was at an amusement park one day and someone, using a wheelchair, passed by. Most of the children ran away from this man but the little boy ran up to him and said, “Hi! You have a wheelchair just like my friend Chris”

Chris became ill and died suddenly, in his sleep, one Saturday morning. I called all the parents and told them that Chris had died. I closed my daycare on Monday so I can make funeral arrangements. It was only then that I realized that I had to help the children understand this death while dealing with my own grief.

I opened my daycare on Tuesday, even though many of my friends said I should take the week off to grieve. I just felt it would help us all to be together faster. On Tuesday morning, I sat in our playroom and told the children that Chris had died and that he would not be coming back. Then we went into Chris’ empty bedroom, sat on the floor and talked about it some more. They kept asking where he was and I just said he died and he’s not coming back but we remember him in many ways. I played some of his favorite music and they danced to it. Together we read a few of the books he read to them. I even gave them some candy from his secret candy drawer! They sat on his bed and in his wheelchair. They used to sit in his empty wheelchair when he was in bed but never moved in it unless Chris moved around with them. The mobile wheelchair was an extension of Chris’ body. I thought about how the change would make it seem real so I started pushing them around the house in a chair. They had never done that before so it was a sign that things were different now. I also put some of his shirts and hats in the dressing area and put a picture of him among their pictures on our wall. We also read several picture books about death at that time. The older children ordered stories and drew pictures of Chris. The families were invited to Chris’ memory collection and the children wrote messages to Chris, attached them to balloons and released them.

The younger children did not understand their loss; however, they felt, however, that something was different and that I was sad. One day, a one year old who wasn’t usually very shy, threw himself into my lap and hugged me while I was sitting on the floor missing Chris. He seemed to know I needed that outfit. A six-year-old said matter-of-factly, “I guess we’ll never see Chris here again. Who’s going to replace him?” because he considered how the loss would affect us all. My 3-year-old niece, Chris’s cousin and Goddaughter, asked me why I had teary eyes one day. I said I was sad and that I missed Chris. She said, “I do too! I wish he would come back.” All I could say was “I do too!”

Here are some ideas to help with this emotional, human experience.

o Be honest and use words like “died” not “went to sleep.” Children are very literate and may be afraid to go to sleep because they may also die. Answer their question honestly according to their age and level of development.

o Accept the feelings of sadness. He tells them that sadness is normal and that adults understand how they feel.

o Talk about keeping the loved one’s memory alive for them. Post photos, tell stories and browse photo albums. The love and memories will never go away, nor should they.

o Try to keep routines as consistent as possible.

o Some children will relapse during this period and care and understanding will help.

Children of different ages and stages understand death in different ways and need special consideration.

Children up to two years old. They don’t really have a concept of death but they feel a great loss on the death of a parent. They can sense sad feelings in others and respond to changes in environment and caregivers. Regular routines and loving caregivers will help reduce anxiety.

Children from two to six years. Children between two and six years old do not understand that death is final. They believe that death is something temporary or irreversible. Many children at this age are not affected by the death of a loved one because they really believe that the person will return. They may feel that they did something to cause their death. It is important for parents to ask questions to confirm feelings of responsibility and then reassure children that this is not the case.

Children from six to nine years. Around the age of six, most children begin to understand that death is final, although this understanding is not complete. They may see death as something that only happens to old people or other people. Children may not be able to accept that death happens to everyone.

Children from nine to twelve years. Some children in this age group may still feel responsible for the death. Their understanding is increasing and children in this age range can probably process most of the information if it is given carefully.

Teenagers. By the time children reach their teens, they may understand death as well as adults. Even though they have this understanding, they still need a lot of support from parents and loved ones.

Books for Young Children and Parents about Death and Dying

o The dead bird – Margaret Wise Brown

o The Fall of Freddie the Leaf. LeoBuscaglia

o Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs. Tommy de Paola

o My grandfather died today. Joan Fassler

o The Tenth Good Thing About Barley. Judith Viorst

from Lip Lap Desire. Jonathan London and Sylvia Long

o Bric’s Parting Gift. Susan Varley

o Love you forever. Robert Munsch

o I miss you: The first look at the death of Pat Thomas

o When a Dinosaur Dies: A Guide to Understanding Death (Dino Life Guide for Families) Laurie Krasny Brown, Marc Brown

o 35 Ways to Help a Grieving Child (Guidebook Series) by Dougy’s Center for Grieving Children

o Help Me Say Goodbye: Activities to Help Children Cope with the Death of a Special Person by Janis Silverman

o No Sadness: A Guide to Good Grief for Kids Dealing with Loss (Elf-Help Books for Kids) by Michaelene Mundy

o What on Earth do you do when someone dies? by Trevor Romain

o After the Death of Charlotte’s Mother (Hardcover) by Cornelia Spelman, Judith Friedman

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