The parents of Sandy Hook school children are reeling in shock, yet they must explain death to young children. Talking with kindergarten, first and second graders is a real challenge because of their limited vocabularies. How can you explain death to a young child? I have BS in Early Childhood Education and taught preschool and kindergarten, so I have some suggestions.
First, do not compare death to sleep, as some have done. This comparison leads to misunderstanding and, in some instances, denial. I would avoid the bedtime prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep” because of its reference to death. Indeed, your child may think God kills people while they are sleeping. Grief expert Rabbi Earl Grollman thinks parents must be honest when talking with kids about death.
Personally, I wouldn’t tell a young child that God needed little angels in heaven. Even preschool and kindergarten kids are capable of thinking, “I don’t want to be an angel. I want to be with my Mommy and Daddy and play with my friends.” The concept of angels can be difficult for adults, let alone children, so it may be best to avoid it.
Since young children have limited vocabularies, encourage them to draw pictures about their feelings. Stock up on plain paper, crayons and water color markers. Art therapist Marge Heegaard has written several art books for young children, When Someone Very Special Dies and When Something Terrible Happens. Both are available from www.amazon.com.
Read stories to young children about loss and grief. Centering Corporation in Omaha, Nebraska, a company that specializes in grief resources, has published picture books for young children and workbooks for older kids. To learn more about these resources visit www.centering.org or call 1-866-218-0101.
Grief expert Rabbi Earl A. Grollman has written a helpful resource for parents to share with children, Talking About Death: A Dialogue Between Parent and Child. It begins with an illustrated story to read to your child. Page 10 explains death clearly. “It’s not like playing a game. . . . When people die, they never come back to life again.” Adult feelings, including denial, guilt, memories, rituals, customs, and the loss of family members, are discussed in the second part of the book.
Encourage young children to remember the deceased in special ways, such as planting flowers, writing a story, or creating a memory book with photos and words. If a deceased sibling loved teddy bears, for example, you could donate books about teddy bears to the public library. Ask the library to put “In memory” stickers on the title pages.
Tell your child that his or her feelings are okay. Help your child name his or her feelings – sad, lonely, scared, angry, etc. Admit you have these feelings, too, and your feelings are often mixed up. Most important, assure your child will always remember the deceased and that love lasts forever.
Harriet Hodgson 2012