Ways to help children understand death

I have often been asked by parishioners for advice in helping their children or grandchildren understand death. My responses have been as varied as the people asking questions, the age of the children involved, the circumstances of death, the role of faith in the lives of the children, and so on. Today I found a blog that deals sensitively with a very sensitive matter–how to help a child understand (and cope with) death.

Judith Johnson, author and speaker, provides a brief introduction to her “12 ways to help children understand death” photo essay.

One piece of fallout from our taboo against talking about death is that we don’t effectively prepare our children to deal with death. They are much more aware of death than we realize and need our support in developing a healthy understanding.

While age determines to some extent how a child will respond to the death of a loved one, each child has a unique journey of learning about death. Apply the guidelines listed below with sensitivity to the child’s individual level of development, environment, ethnic, religious and cultural background and their exposure or lack thereof to the reality of death. Regardless of religious beliefs, death is about loss and children need our help to accept loss and to grieve.

I found her succinct notes to be helpful as a starting point if you are a parent or grandparent. I agree that, especially as men and women of faith, we have a responsibility to our children so that they can develop a “healthy understanding” of death and how to move forward after a death of a loved one, even a pet.

Be aware of your own needs and questions. Let your faith be expressed. Be sensitive to the child. Be age appropriate in your comments. Let your love shine through what you say and do.

For further reading and reflection

  • Childhood loss: The untold burden — an essay written by Lynne Hughes whose mother died when she was 9 and whose father died when she was 12. She states that “New national research we conducted shows that one out of seven kids will lose a parent or sibling before the age of 20.” Her essay invites careful consideration of our responses to this as we take responsibility for helping our children grieve.
  • Hello grief — a website for adults and children to “share and learn about grief and loss”
  • Comfort Zone Camp: A fun & safe place for grieving children — the website for a camp and organization founded by Lynne Hughes to begin to meet the needs of children who are grieving
  • Children’s grieving — a CBS Sunday Morning piece featuring Katie Couric (who has had to help her two children deal with the death of their father in 1998)
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