What Do You Do With A Deceased Week Old Baby 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 had to deal very much with death in my family daycare. Grandparents would die but many lived far away, so the loss was not as profound for the children in my group, who ranged in age from 6 months to 6 years. Once a 3 year old handed me a dead bug. Not really knowing what to say, I just said, “Maybe he’s sleeping.” The little boy looked up at me with only the seriousness a 3-year-old can muster and said, “No, Lynnie, he’s dead.” It was then that I realized that children do know about death but we have to help them deal with this natural process.

My grown nephew, Chris, had Muscular Dystrophy and he lived with me for many years. He became a very important part of the life of my kindergartners. He would drive them around in his wheelchair, read to them, play his music for them to dance to and sneak candy to them when I wasn’t looking! Many of the parents said they chose my program in part because they liked the fact 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, walked by. Most of the kids ran away from this man but her little boy ran up to him and said, “Hi! You have a wheelchair just like my friend Chris”

Chris fell 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 nursery on Monday so I could make funeral arrangements. It was only then that I realized that I would have to help the children understand this death while dealing with my own grief.

I reopened 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 sooner. Tuesday morning, I sat in our playroom and told the kids that Chris had died and he wasn’t coming back. Then we went into Chris’s empty bedroom, sat on the floor and talked about him some more. They kept asking where he was and I just said he’s dead and he’s not coming back, but we can remember him in many ways. I played some of his favorite music and they danced to it. Together we read some of the books he read to them. I even gave them candy from his secret candy box! 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 moving wheelchair was an extension of Chris’ body. I thought about how to make the change seem real so I started pushing them around the house in his chair. They had never done that before, so it was a signal that things were different now. I also put some of his shirts and hats in the clothing area and put a picture of him in between their pictures on our wall. We also read several picture books about death during that time. The older children dictated stories and drew pictures of Chris. The families were invited to Chris’s memorial meeting and the children wrote messages to Chris, attached them to balloons and released them.

The younger children did not understand the loss; however, they still felt that something was different and that I was sad. One day, a one-year-old, who wasn’t usually very cuddly, threw himself into my lap and hugged me as I sat on the floor, missing Chris. He seemed to know I needed that hug. One six-year-old said, “I guess we won’t see Chris here anymore. Who’s going to replace him?” because he noted how the loss would affect us all. My 3-year-old niece, Chris’s cousin and goddaughter, asked why I was teary-eyed one day. I said I was sad and that I missed Chris. She said, “Me too! I’d like him to come back.” All I could say was “Me too!”

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

o Be honest and use words like “died” not “slept.” Children are very literal and they may be afraid to sleep because they may also die. Answer their question honestly according to their age and developmental stage.

o Accept your feelings of sadness. It lets them know that grief is normal and that adults understand how they feel.

o Talk about the loved one to keep the memory alive for them. Place pictures, tell stories and view picture albums. The love and memories never go away, nor should they.

o Try to keep routines as consistent as possible.

o Some children will regress during this time and care and understanding will help.

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

Children up to two years old. They really have no concept of death but they feel a deep loss after the death of a parent. They may sense feelings of sadness in others and react to changes in routine and caregivers. Consistent routines and loving caregivers will help relieve anxiety.

Two to six years old. Children between the ages of two and six do not understand that death is final. They think that death is something temporary or reversible. Many children of this age do not seem affected by the death of a loved one because they actually believe that the person will return. They may feel that they did something to cause the death. It is important for parents to ask questions to determine feelings of responsibility and then reassure the children that this is not true.

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 the fact that death happens to everyone.

Nine to twelve year olds. Some children at this age may still feel responsible for the death. Their understanding is increasing and children at this age can probably handle most information if given carefully.

Young people By the time children reach the teenage years, they probably understand death the same as an adult. Although they have this understanding, they still need a lot of support from parents and loved ones.

Books for Children and Parents about Death and Dying

o The Dead Bird – Margaret Wise Brown

o The Fall of Freddie the Leaf. LeoBuscaglia

o Nana Above and Nana Below. Tommy from Paola

o My Grandfather Died Today. Joan Fassler

o The Tenth Good Thing About Barney. Judith Viorst

o Desire of Lip Lap. Jonathan London & Sylvia Long

o Badger’s Handout Gift. Susan Varley

o Love Yourself Forever. Robert Munsch

o I Miss You: A First Look At Death Pat Thomas

o When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death Laurie Krasny Brown, Marc Brown

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

o Help Me Say Goodbye: Activities to Help Children Cope When a Special Person Dies by Janis Silverman

o Sad Not Bad: 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 Charlotte’s Mom Died (Hardcover) by Cornelia Spelman, Judith Friedman

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