BEYOND THE TEXTBOOK
This past month I learned the hard lesson of dealing with the death of a close loved one. My mom passed away and it was a heavy blow, not only for me, but for others who loved her as well. A few of the others included my eight nieces and nephews. Each of them responded in their own way to my mother’s death, but the four who range in age from four to six years had reactions that varied from swift denial to slow acceptance.

Their diverse responses are similar to how many children respond to death. And while there is no cookie-cutter way that all children deal with the death of a close friend or family member, there are some approaches that parents can take to help their little ones better cope with the loss.

Be clear and direct when reporting death

It is important to talk to children in simple terms in regards to death. Children, especially preschool-age, are better able to understand facts about death rather than euphemisms, like “passed away” and “gone to a better place.” Parents often think that less direct phrases will decrease children’s grief. Instead, such phrases may leave the child confused. For example, if you mention the latter phrase, your child may be puzzled as to why others are crying if the place the deceased has gone to is supposedly better. Explain a loved one’s death in specific and concrete terms, such as “Granny stopped breathing.” Being specific and concrete not only allows children to quickly understand what you are trying to convey, but it also gives a more rapid start to the grief process.

Use the death of a pet to explain

Due to cartoons and video games, preschool aged children usually think that death is reversible (They may, for example, believe that someone can get up after being flattened by huge truck wheels). With this in mind, you may find it useful to compare the death of a loved one to something less intimate. Perhaps your child experienced the death of a pet goldfish, turtle, or dog. If so, discuss, in a matter-of-fact way, the things that signaled the death- breathlessness, silence, motionlessness, and so on. Using a pet allows you to talk about death objectively, and it will also allow you to answer the many questions your young ones will most likely have without becoming too emotional.

Channel your child’s grief creatively

Parents too often want their children to feel better quickly rather than deal with the pain over the loss. Nevertheless, it is important for children to experience pain in a safe and healthy way. The creative arts allow them to do so. Children can draw pictures to express their emotions. They can also make a collage by collecting facial expressions symbolizing grief from newspapers or magazines. Poetry writing is another effective outlet. To start, expose your child to different types of poetry- such as free verse, haiku or cinquain. Then have your child write different types of poems using the deceased as the subject. Finally, try having them write in a journal about their experience with grief. They may choose to write in their own voice or, to be creative, in the voice of the deceased. Because this is only for your child’s healing, be sure to just compliment what he completes instead of critiquing it.

Know when to seek professional help

The National Network for Child Care encourages parents to seek professional help for their children when kids display any kind of extreme behaviors, such as suicide threats; substance abuse; or destructive acts toward people, animals, or property. Such behaviors are clear signs that your child is ineffectively handling grief. They might be in one of the first four stages of grief-denial, anger, bargaining, or depression- instead of moving on to the last stage: acceptance. As with any circumstance, consider implementing interventions if grief affects your child’s normal way of life. Interventions may include you and other family members coming together to brainstorm ideas that target your child’s problem, or seeking assistance from a licensed counselor to help your child overcome the loss.

China Hill is a teacher at KIPP Ascend Charter School on the West Side.