Five-year-old Greg was sad. His pet gerbil, Jasper, had died. Jasper was lying in the cage very still. Greg started screaming and crying and Mom ran into the room to see what happened. “Something is wrong with Jasper. He isn’t moving. I’m scared.”
Mom had a tear in her eye. “Jasper died, sweetie.” Greg put his hands over his ears. “No! No! That can’t be true.”
Here are some questions and possible answers that might follow.
Greg: What does dead mean?
Mom: Death means when the body stops working. Sometimes people die when they are very, very, very old, or very, very, very sick, or they are so, so, so injured that the doctors and nurses can’t make their bodies work any more. Jasper is dead. It is sad. He will not move, not be warm, and not be alive again.
Greg: What can’t you do when your body doesn’t work?
Mom: You can’t eat, you can’t play, you can’t watch TV – you can’t even breathe. Jasper has died. His body is getting cold. It stopped working and he can’t even run in his cage.
Greg: But where does his body go?
Mom: Animals and people can be buried in the ground. When you are ready, we can find a box to bury Jasper in. We can put a soft blanket inside with Jasper’s body and you can put in something special too.
Greg: Can I put in a picture of me? He would like that. Then he won’t feel so alone. Let’s put his toy in too.
Mom: That sounds like a great idea. We can decorate the box with things that remind you of Jasper.
Greg: Can we bury Jasper together?
Mom: Yes, it is nice to have a ceremony where everyone can do something. You could say a prayer, light a candle, send off a balloon, or plant a flower. It feels good to do something special after a death.
Concluding thought: Telling children the truth in age-appropriate ways is helpful in securing their trust. In order to communicate, we need clear and simple language for dialogues. Preparing answers and dialogues using definitions of death and of specific ways people die can encourage open communication and maintain a level of acceptance for the grieving child.
Excerpted from Great Answers to Difficult Questions about Death: What Children Need to Know. Linda Goldman Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2009