Most of the work we do with young children is soul work. Children study us to learn how to live, love and relate to one another. Word choice is important, but we know the behavior we model is what really matters. We also know that children need to feel safe on order to reach higher levels of learning. So when we try to protect them by not talking about death, we inadvertently create fear, confusion and mistrust. Which is as far away from a feeling of safety that you can get.
“There was so little air and light in my childhood, so little circulation and transparency and truth. When people and pets died, it was like the Big Eraser came and got them, except for a few mice and birds we buried in the back yard… I was terrified of death by the time I was three or four, actively if not lucidly.” © Anne Lamott, Excerpted from Help thanks wow, 2012.
Talking about death with children is deeply personal and situational. In some cases, we may need to seek the advice of a professional counselor to know how and when to tell a child about a death, especially if it’s a traumatic event. But unless we find a safe way to be open with children about hard things like death, they’ll just create their own explanation for why the person or pet is gone. Sometimes children assume guilt, and often they develop fears or feel betrayed when we don’t explain in simple terms what happened. Even very young children want to be included in our sad and snug inner circle of grief. They already sense something is terribly wrong. Let the child’s natural curiosity and developmental level guide the amount of information you share. But find a way to share.
It’s so important to begin to teach young children about death as they work to construct their own understanding about life. Read to children about life and death and lifespans, and make space for them to safely wonder, worry and ask as many questions as they need to. There are many excellent books out there…and there are some truly unhelpful ones, too. So preview the material to make sure the message is exactly what you want to convey, and is developmentally appropriate for the child(ren). Here are a few titles I think honor research-based, nurturing bereavement support for children:
Loewen, N., & Lyles, C. (2012). Saying good-bye to Uncle Joe: What to expect when someone you love dies. Mankato, MN: Picture Window Books.
Mellonie, B., & Ingpen, R. (1983). Lifetimes: the beautiful way to explain death to children. Toronto: Bantam Books.
Rogers, F., & Judkis, J. (1988). When a pet dies. New York: Putnam.
Romain, T., & Verdick, E. (1999). What on earth do you do when someone dies? Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit.
Read together, then listen fully, and help a child assign meaning to the trauma that may have happened. In this way you will teach children you are to be trusted, and they do not have to be so afraid of the very hard things in life…because they know they are not alone.
Copyright (2015) Suzanne Bayer. All Rights Reserved.