Helping children understand death and cope with grief

Published on Tuesday, 12 November 2019
Last updated on Tuesday, 31 December 2019

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How do you help the children in your early childhood service understand death? And how do you help them cope when it touches them personally, either in their family, or because it's directly affected your early childhood community, with the death of an educator or a child?

It's a difficult subject to tackle, but an essential one. Fortunately, there are resources that can help.

"Ideally, all children would become as familiar with the words dying and death as they are with life and living, from the very beginning of their lives," says Mrs Dianne McKissock OAM, Co-founder and Patron-National of the National Centre for Childhood Grief (NCCG).

"Even before they understand language, show them the difference between things that are living and those that are dead. We can let them feel leaves that are living, dying or dead, show them dead insects or birds. Beginning these conversations very early serves several purposes - it acknowledges that death is part of life, makes the language familiar to the child, and increases confidence in addressing the subject."

"Access to truth is the key," Mrs McKissock emphasises. "That is, knowing that in this home, in this school, there are no taboo questions and the child will be given truthful answers in age related language, when the child is ready to ask the questions."

ABC TV recently aired a Play School episode called Beginnings and Endings, to address the subject of life and death with its young audience, the feelings experienced around grief, and how to talk about it.

ABC TV worked closely with Dr Elizabeth Mann, the Clinical Director of the NCCG's "A Friend's Place", when putting the program together, and it features the kind of straightforward language that the NCCG recommends.

"Use truthful language," says Mrs McKissock. "Children are concrete thinkers and interpret words like 'lost' literally. The term passed away has no meaning for them. Help them to become familiar with the words 'dying', 'death' and 'dead'. They deal with facts better than many adults."

In the Play School episode, the toys gather round to support Little Ted, who's mourning the death of his goldfish, Swish. "His pet goldfish has died," explains the presenter, "which means he isn't here anymore."

The presenter reads Mem Fox's Book "Sophie" to Little Ted, which details a child's life through the lens of her relationship with Grandpa. "And then there was no grandpa, just emptiness and sadness for a while," writes Mem Fox.

The presenter makes it explicit: "Sophie's grandpa has died. He was very old, and his body stopped working."

Sometimes the subject of death isn't abstract, though, and children and staff have to cope with the recent death of someone they know.

Dianne McKissock advises families not to leave children out of important rituals like funerals or even spending time with a loved person after death. Early childhood settings can play their part by helping children learn how to remember and value memories of people who have died.

In the recent Play School episode presenter Alex Papps shares his own personal memories with viewers. "I'm making a special scrapbook about my Gram, because I love her very, very much," he says while gluing in a photo.

"My Gram isn't alive anymore. She was very, very old and a few years ago she died, which means she isn't here anymore, which is very sad for my family and for me. Sometimes when we feel sad, we talk about our memories of Gram. And that's why I made this scrapbook. Let's have a look."

Little Ted works through some of his feelings through talking about memories, too, triggered by a drawing of Swish made for him by one of the other toys. "Pictures are a lovely way to remember someone," says the presenter. "I wish I could still talk to him," cries Little Ted.

"We could talk about our favourite memories of Swish," says one of the toys, prompting stories that make them laugh, as well as cry.

Importantly, conversations and activities like this should be followed by something light-hearted and unrelated, like cooking, singing silly songs - anything fun.

"In this way they learn that all emotions can co-exist," says Mrs McKissock.

According to Mrs McKissock certain practices may be unhelpful when talking to children about death, these include:

  • Using euphemisms like 'lost', 'passed away, or 'gone to sleep'. This can cause children to fear being lost or going to sleep or want to search for the 'lost' person.
  • Telling children, the dead person is a star in the sky, because they aren't. It's better to suggest thinking of the dead person when looking at the stars, because they've been like a star in the child's life.
  • Trying to soften death with images of heaven - that's too complicated a concept for young children. Mrs McKissock warns that children can develop suicidal ideation when they think heaven is the perfect place and they want to go there.

Books are also good resources for talking about death in an early childhood setting. Mrs McKissock recommends "Lifetimes" by Bryan Mellonie as a very gentle way to discuss death with young children, and "When Dinosaurs Die - a Guide to Understanding Death", by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown.

Other useful resources for early childhood educators include:

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