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Helping Kids Deal with Death

Who wants to talk to a child about death? The answer is probably…no one. As adults, we want to protect our children from painful experiences and the death of a loved one is the most painful of all. As children’s ministers, we play an important role in children’s lives and need to be prepared in case death ever touches one of them.

How Children View Death

How children perceive death depends on their age, developmental level, and life experiences. 

Infants-2 years. Children in this age group do not have the concept of death or realize what is happening. They do respond to the grief of those around them. As they approach two they experience the loss of a mother as a severe loss but may not be profoundly affected by the death of others.

Ages 2-5. This age group is very literal. They perceive death as a temporary state. They equate death with taking a trip or falling asleep. In their minds the person will awaken at some point and return to full life.

Ages 6-9. Children at this age have a much greater ability to understand death and it consequences. They know the difference between fantasy and reality and they can express guilt. They no longer view death as temporary and know the loved one will not return. They still may not accept it as something that happens to everyone including them.

Ages 10-12. The children’s concept of death at this age approaches that of an adult. They know death is permanent. They grasp the meaning of funerals and other rituals and understand how death occurred and realize the impact death has on them and the family.

Effects the Loss of a Loved One Can Have on a Child

Children’s responses to grief vary according to their concepts of death, their developmental level, their relationship with the person who died, the circumstances surrounding the death and the ability of the caregivers to communicate and emotionally support them.   Children often grieve in small doses and may experience the absence from a loss more than once. They may not tell you they are grieving, but you can tell from what they say and do.

Grieving children may experience physical symptoms of fatigue, muscle weakness, stomach aches, appetite changes, tightness in chest, even the symptoms of the deceased prior to death.

Mentally, grieving children may have impaired concentration or self-esteem, difficulty in making decisions, preoccupation with the loss, confusion, disbelief, and increased sleep disturbances.

They may emotionally experience numbness, anger, guilt, sadness, mood swings, depression, self-blaming, fears/worries, even silliness, crying uncontrollably or not at all.

Some common behavior changes might include regressing to earlier developmental behaviors (bed wetting, thumb-sucking), rebellious, defiant behavior, fighting, “perfect child” actions, clinging, excessive touching, verbal attacks, hyperactivity/restlessness, and poor grades.

Spiritual responses include feeling forsaken, not belonging, not cared for, feeling judged/condemned by God, feeling the presence/absence of God, needing to give/receive forgiveness, and questioning their faith.

Sandra Fox, early pioneer in children’s grief, lists Four Tasks of Grieving: Understanding occurs when the child knows the person is dead and not coming back. They understand death as being permanent. Grieving—Feeling the Feelings happens when the child can feel the sorrow and do the mourning that is an outward expression of grief.   Commemorating means keeping the memories alive. Children have asked that a dead brother’s Christmas stocking be hung and filled with toys and be given to charity. Moving on is the time when the child engages in life again living fully while still remembering the person. (Joy Johnson, Keys to Helping Children Deal with Death, and Grief, Barron’s Educ.Series)

How Can Children’s Ministers Help Ease the Pain the Child Is Experiencing?

Children of all ages mourn and yearn for loved ones who die. Grief is best managed when out in the open. Children cope better with the loss in a safe, caring, warm environment that promotes and encourages expression of emotions.

Give Permission to Grieve

When children face loss they need someone to grieve with them, they need to know that grieving is okay and they need to know they are not alone. Sharing a verse of hope (Hebrews 13:5b, I Peter 5:7) can be appropriate, but don’t make children feel guilty for grieving. Don’t try to cheer them up, too soon, but cry with them and love them. (From Kevin Lawson, “Tipping Faith Points, “ CM Magazine, Nov.-Dec., 2004) Encourage them to pour out their heart cries to God, to share their confusion, anger and pain with Him.   Even though we don’t know why tragedies happen we can reassure them that God is waiting with open arms to receive their loved ones when they die.

Give Children Time to Talk…and then Listen, Listen

Encourage them to speak about death. Children who have lost a loved one often feel powerless and helpless. Talking with someone who cares is important to his or her recovery. Acknowledge and validate feelings of worry, anger, physical distress, and pain as normal in the time of loss. Death is hard to understand, but let them know they can trust Jesus when he says his children will live with him forever. Very young children may just want to be held, read to, or played with. This is their way of asking for assurance that things will be the same for them. .

Share Memories

“Remember when…?” is a great conversation starter to get children to talk. Share stories about the loved one the child may not be aware of, “ I remember when….” “Something you probably didn’t know about your sister/mother/grandpa…. “ Share personal thoughts and feelings. “I miss… what do you miss?” “ When my mom died I remember worrying about…. Do you think other kids worry? What about?

Become a Part of Their Support System

Be there. Attend the visitation, funeral, and commemorative services the family may have. The parents may wish for you to be the trusted adult who accompanies the child to the services. Check in with the children during the week and let them know you are available to talk. Send notes to remind them of your love and prayers. Provide extra hugs and attention in the weeks to come. Your continued presence as well as what you say and do can show that you believe happiness and peace will return.

Ideas You Can Use

Teachable Moments—The Easter season provides an excellent opportunity to talk about death with older children through the obvious example of Jesus’ death and resurrection.   Discussion of prophets/martyrs offers opportunities to educate. A prayer request for a very ill person or a funeral notice in a bulletin could provoke questions. Build on what the children already know about death. “When you die, the part of you that laughs, cries, thinks, and feels go to heaven. Your body stays here and doesn’t feel anything anymore.” “We will all die someday, but we hope it is not for a very long time. “ “Jesus loves us and wants us to be with Him when we die.” “When we get to heaven we’ll see Grandpa he’ll be waiting.” Our Christian faith teaches us that after our death, we, too, will be reunited in heaven with God and all the other faithful people who have gone before us.   Affirm death as a part of life, not an enemy of it.

“Relational” Classroom—Help children connect with the emotions of people in the Bible. “How do think Noah felt when….” Identifying one’s emotions is an important skill for children to develop before a loss occurs. Play such games as Thumbs Up, Thumbs, Down (children agree or disagree with statements such as “People get sick because they’re bad.”), Sentence completions (“I get scared when….”), Draw a Feeling (draw faces to match emotions). (Adapted from “Tipping Faith Points”, Stephanie Martin, CM Magazine, Nov.-Dec., 2004)

Is Mr. Hogan in Heaven?—If the deceased is a Christian, this is a glorious question. But if you know the person wasn’t a Christian- or even if you don’t know for sure-it’s a tough one. Let your answer reflect God’s love, saying, “ We know God loves Mr. Hogan very much and wants him to be in heaven. The Bible tells us God wants everyone to experience grace and forgiveness (2 Peter 3:9), I believe Mr. Hogan had a chance to meet Jesus in his lifetime and if he did, then he’s in heaven.” (Adapted from “Grief Matters”, Sharon Marshall, Christian Parenting Today, Winter 2003)

What Not to Say

“God loved your Dad so much that he took him to be in heaven with him.” Children should not see God as a people snatcher or the villain who pushed the car off the road.

“God wanted your mother because she was so good. This can be an invitation for the child to quit being good.

Grandma is sleeping.” The Child may become afraid to go to sleep.

“Don’t cry. Be a big boy/girl.”   The Child needs to know God gives us time to cry and remember those we love. He hurts with us.

“It’s all a part of God’s plan.”   What plan? Is it part of God’s plan to have a mother killed by a drunk driver?

“It was God’s will.” A child may become confused when he hears this. If God is a loving being who watches over us, why would he deliberately hurt us?

What to Say

“I’m so sorry.”

God loves your brother very much and he has a very special place waiting for him in heaven.”

“I don’t know why this is happening, but God still loves you and wants to comfort you.

“I’m praying for you.”

“You’ll see Dad in heaven someday.”

“When you’re ready to talk about it, I’d love to listen.”

“Nothing you did or said caused this.”  

What To Remember

  • Purchase a children’s book and donate it to the church library in honor of the loved one.
  • If the loved one is a friend of a child, encourage the child to write a letter to the parents of the friend sharing a memory they made together.
  • Suggest the family make a “Memory Box”. Take a special item of clothing, a piece of jewelry, a book she loved, and other treasures that were precious to her and put them in a special box. Children can visit the box anytime and remember Mommy.
  • Engage your children’s ministry in planting a tree or flower at the church in memory of the loved one.

Resource Review

  • Helping Children Grieve When Someone They Love Dies by Theresa M. Huntley. Augsburg Fortress Publishers, Box 1209, Minneapolis, MN 55440; www.augsburgbooks.com Cost: $12.99. This revised edition of Huntley’s essential guide to children’s grief will help you listen to children, answer their questions, and guide them in coping with their feelings. Also included is advice for parents and caregivers to help children who are dying.
  • Sad Isn’t Bad by Michaelene Mundy. Abbey Press, St. Meinrad, IN 47577; also available from www.compassionbooks.com Cost: $6.95. This book offers children of all ages a comforting, realistic look at loss—loaded with positive, life-affirming helps for coping with loss as a child. It promotes honest and healthy grief—and growth. An excellent read-aloud book.
  • Compassion Books. Inc., 7036 State Highway 80 South Burnsville, NC 28714 Phone: 828-675-5909. E-mail: Heal2grow@aol.com Website: www.compassionbooks.com They have over 500 books, tapes and videos on the topic of loss and grief, death and dying, comfort and hope for children and adults. Call or write for a free catalogue.
  • Helping Children Grieve and Grow by Donna O’Toole with Jerre Cory. Available from www.compassionbooks.com $5.95. This booklet provides information about how children experience loss and grief and what adults can do to help them through it. It is easy to read, compassionate, and very useful.

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