Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Dealing with death: Helping 3 - 6 year olds

Typically a child will not understand that death is permanent. The child may think of it as temporary or magically reversible, or may even appear to be unaffected. Fears that dead people may be cold or hungry in the grave are common. There may be a belief that life goes on just like walking through a door and that they can go visit. Young children might not react immediately to a loss or express grief in adult terms. Because of the limit of what children know they are often very curious about many of the concrete details about death without dealing with the emotional loss. Expect questions about the coffin, the funeral, burial, etc.

Child's reaction:
  • May have frightening dreams, repaeat questions about death, may revert to earlier behaviors.
  • Children may play out the events surronding death. Children of this age will take words literally. Since children have limited experiences, they may make sense of the world by connecting events that don't relate. For example: Aunt Betty had a headache and she died. Daddy has a headache. maybe he will die too.

How to help:

  • Look into the child's eyes and touch the child gently when discussing death.
  • Shorten time away from the child. Be sure he or she knows where you are and how to reach you.
  • Avoid words such as sleeping, resting, loss, passed away, taking a long trip when describing death.
  • Talk about what it means to be dead in concrete terms such as someone doesn't breathe, eat, go to the bathroom or grow.
  • Repeat simple, honest explanations as often as the child asks.
  • Reassure the child of his own safety and your plan for continued presence. Share that most people die when they are older.
  • Allow expressions of feelings such as drawing pictures, reading and telling stories about death or the loved one, or reenacting the funeral service.

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