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How to help children cope with loved one's death

I volunteer with the Visiting Nurse Association Circle of Hope Hospice here in El Paso, Texas. I am the librarian, and I work in child bereavement. I have compiled some of the ideas that have been most useful in helping children cope with death.

Grief is an overwhelming emotion that is physically, spiritually and mentally taxing. Unfortunately, because children tend to grieve so differently from adults, they are often misunderstood or excluded, which adds to their pain. There are many good books written on how to help children deal with grief.The following might be helpful:

  • Talk to the children's teachers and school counselor.
  • Give them their own picture of the loved one.
  • Give them a book, folder or journal in which they can write about the person.
  • Let them commemorate the life of the loved one by writing a poem, planting a tree, making a photo album, etc.
  • Let them talk about the person who died and how much they loved him or her. The person might be dead, but not forgotten.
  • Sit down with a picture of the person who died and let the children talk out their feelings and say goodbye.
  • Do all you can to help alleviate any guilt a child might feel. Expressing their feelings, no matter how negative, can help children clear their guilt. When feelings are talked about, they often lose their negative impact.
  • Never underestimate the power of prayer and its comforting influence.

Parents can be inspired to know how to comfort their children, and they should teach their children how to act around other children who have had a death in their family. If children who have had a family member die are avoided by their peers, their grief is greater. - Rosalyn Johns, El Paso, Texas


What we did:

Fact from fantasy

Child-care experts say that children generally start distinguishing fact from fantasy around the age of 5 to 7 years. But development is also an individual issue and therefore needs to be taken into consideration.

Ben was 5 years old when his grandfather died. His parents asked me, his nursery teacher, to help. We went to the library and looked at some books relating to loss. We talked a lot about love and losing something we loved. Ben was able to express feelings about his grandfather and said he knows that Granddad loves him and he also loves his grandfather. - Esther Crabbene, London, England

Avoid euphemisms

Talk about death respectfully. Use the words death, die, dead and deceased. Avoid euphemisms. If a child is told that Grandpa has "gone away," he or she may be unduly upset and confused the next time anyone "goes away," even for a few minutes.

Respect feelings of loss and sadness in the child and yourself. When Mary wept over the death of her brother Lazarus, Jesus didn't question her faith or criticize her - He wept with her.

Teach children the blessings of the temple and the eternal nature of families. This knowledge can bring peace and hope to children who miss a deceased loved one. - Janice Leilani Smith, Kingsville, Texas

Grief is personal

Grief is a personal thing. As a parent I discovered, to help my children the most, it was important that I allowed each of them to grieve in ways that they chose. One son withdrew socially for awhile until he was ready to go on with his life, and that, too, was OK. Some of them chose not to talk a lot about their dad, nor did they want to make regular pilgrimages to their father's gravesite. At first I viewed this with concern, not realizing they were grieving in their own way. This was evident to me one year after my husband's death. A daughter chose to do a school multi-media project on the subject of life after death and near-death experiences. She had not grieved in a lot of "traditional" ways. As I helped her with this assignment, it became clear to me that this was her "grief work," and I saw a real healing in her heart begin. - Sherri Furness, Salmon, Idaho

Life doesn't end

Teach children that life doesn't end at death. There is a better life after death and we believe that families are forever, the time will come when we will meet again. They will be waiting for the rest of the family on the other side. - Mere Tupou Diloi, Suva, Fiji Islands

Involve children

Don't presume they are too young to understand or be involved. Even though my wife's father's illness caused significant weight loss and other changes, we encouraged our children to be around Grandpa. They took him for wheelchair rides, fetched ice water for him and, when he was confined to his bed, talked about fun times with him. We talked about our mortal bodies and how easily they can change because of age or illness. - Rick Owen, Idaho Falls, Idaho

Simple terms

Two years ago, my energetic father-in-law died unexpectedly at age 50. Our girls, then ages 4 and 1, had been close to their grandfather. We helped them cope by talking to them in very simple terms about our bodies and spirit and how when we die our spirits return to live with Heavenly Father. We talked about how some day we will see Grandpa again. Lesson 35 in the Family Home Evening Resource Book was a very helpful source. - Susan St. Pierre, West Richland, Wash.

Watched spellbound

I did my best to prepare our son for his grandmother's death, but it was this amazing 8-year-old who taught me coping lessons as I watched him interact with her the night before she died. While he gently changed the washcloth on her forehead, he whispered: "We love you. It's OK if you want to go to heaven now. We'll be all right. Say hello to Grandpa. Thanks for being my grandma."

I watched spellbound as he softly stroked her hair, wound up her music box and placed it near her ear and lovingly changed the tapes of her favorite Church hymns. - Christine Probst, Heber City, Utah

Maintain routines

We made it a point to continue our family traditions and routines, in spite of the fact that my husband was not here to do them with us. This included family prayer morning and night, family scripture reading and discussion, weekly family home evening and consistent bedtimes. In addition, we continued our traditional Sunday dinners.

Continuity in our holiday traditions is something else I have striven to maintain. - Jennilyn Call Eckersley, Houston, Texas

`Hurt me inside'

I was 6 years old when my father died. I had three other sisters who also had to cope with this. We had people come and visit us after my father died. The adults would hug and talk to my mom and my older sisters but they would never say anything to me. It hurt me inside. They must have thought that I did not understand. I knew perfectly what had happened. - Rachel Buck, Ventura, Calif.


How to checklist:

  1. Be sensitive; children grieve differently than adults.
  1. Pray with them; teach them the plan of salvation.
  1. Let them talk about their feelings, remember in own way.
  1. Be honest, straightforward; alleviate any guilt feelings.

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