Helping Children Cope with Death

Children in this age group may engage in compulsive retelling of the traumatic event in an effort to gain some mastery over it. They may unexpectedly blurt out some aspect of the trauma like, “My Aunt Karen was killed in a car crash” and “My mommy cries sometimes.” Although unexpected, these statements offer good opportunities to gently probe into the child’s feelings and discern the purpose of such an announcement. It may be that the child only needed the sense of mastery that comes with verbalizing it, or that there is some underlying feeling or question that needs to be addressed. Because thinking is literal and concrete, death may be best explained in physical terms, such as, “His heart stopped beating, and no one can make it start. Because of that we won’t be seeing him move or talk any more. We will bury his body in the ground, because he is not able to do or say anything anymore.”

For children raised in traditions that believe in an afterlife, concepts such as Heaven may be difficult for them to grasp. They will see a discrepancy between

Be considerate of religious beliefs when talking about the concept of heaven and death.

burial of the body and the description of “going home” or

“going to Heaven.” While the young child probably cannot grasp the concept, you might address the distinction, as “The part that we loved, the part that smiled, laughed, and loved us, is the part that has gone to Heaven. The body that doesn’t work anymore is what is now in the ground.” For example if a child is told that a loved one has gone home, or gone away, they often think that person can come back, or that the place they have gone is somewhere the child can go as well.

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