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

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Linda Goldman

Linda Goldman has a Fellow in Thanatology: Death, Dying, and Bereavement (FT) with a Master of Science in counseling and Master's equivalency in early childhood education. Linda is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor and a National Certified Counselor. She worked as a teacher and counselor in the school system for almost 20 years. Currently, she has a private grief therapy practice in Chevy Chase, Maryland. She works with children, teenagers, families with prenatal loss and grieving adults. Linda shares workshops, courses and trainings on children's grief and trauma and teaches as adjunct faculty in the Graduate Program of Counseling at Johns Hopkins University and King’s University College in Ontario, Canada. She has also taught on the faculty at the University of Maryland School of Social Work/Advanced Certification Program for Children and Adolescents and lectured at many other universities including Pennsylvania State University, Buffalo School of Social Work, University of North Carolina, the National Transportation Safety Board, the University of Hong Kong, and the National Changhua University of Education in Taiwan as well as numerous schools systems throughout the country. She has taught on working with LGBT youth and working with children's grief and trauma at Johns Hopkins Graduate School, the University of Maryland School of Social Work and the Child Welfare Administration. Linda is the author of “Life and Loss: A Guide to Help Grieving Children” and “Breaking the Silence: a Guide to Help Children with Complicated Grief”. Her other books include “Bart Speaks Out: An Interactive Storybook for Young Children On Suicide”, “Helping the Grieving Child in the School”, and a Chinese Edition of “Breaking the Silence: A Guide to Help Children With Complicated Grief”, the Japanese Edition of “Life and Loss: A Guide to Help Grieving Children”, and "Raising Our Children to Be Resilient: A Guide for Helping Children Cope with Trauma in Today’s World" and a children’s book “Children Also Grieve”, Chinese translation of “Children Also Grieve” and “Coming Out, Coming In: Nurturing the Well Being and Inclusion of Gay Youth in Mainstream Society”. She has also authored contributing chapters in resources including Loss of the Assumptive World (2002), Annual Death, Dying, and Bereavement (2001-2007), Family Counseling and Therapy Techniques (1998), and The School Services Sourcebook: A Guide for School-Based Professionals (2006). She has written many articles, including Healing Magazine’s “Helping the Grieving Child in the Schools” (2012), “The Bullying Epidemic, Creating Safe Havens for Gay Youth in Schools” (2006), “Parenting Gay Youth” (2008), “Talking to Kids About Suicide” (2014), “Helping Kids Cope with Grief of Losing a Pet” (2014) and “What Complicates Grief for Children: A Case Study” (2015). Some of her articles on Children's Grief and trauma have been translated into Chinese for the Suicide Prevention Program of Beijing. She appeared on the radio show Helping Gay Youth: Parents Perspective (2008) and has testified at a hearing before the MD Joint House and Senate Priorities Hearing for Marriage Equality (2007) and the MD Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee for the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act (2008).

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