Monday, October 22, 2018

Teaching Children About Death

What do we teach our children about death? Unfortunately, too many children are encouraged to believe that cemeteries, corpses, and spirits are sources of gloom and terror. While some may say this is all done in fun, the reality is that many people never stop attaching fear to certain practices, images, and places connected with death. These learned experiences have become entrenched in their thoughts and are considered normal, even though they are totally unnatural to the death experience itself. When children have nothing positive to balance with these fears, it is no wonder that many adults never stop fearing and avoiding even the topic of death in conversations.

A former school principal, I noticed that children began associating death with fear at early ages. They often arrive at erroneous conclusions about death experiences, especially when no one has taken the time to counsel them personally. I have heard children say the deceased person is sleeping, as if death is temporary or that the sleep process can go on forever. Believing this can also cause sleep problems. I have heard them struggle with anguish, believing the deceased left them because they stopped caring about them or as a result of their wrongdoing. These children needed comforting closure that they could not garner on their own.

When a loved one dies, too often adults become focused on their own grief and after-death preparations that can consume much of their time and energy. In-depth discussions with children about what has happened may not occur. This leaves children in a very vulnerable situation of having to move through their own pain with little guidance. They may be overwhelmed with anger, guilt, sadness, and even relief, depending on their relationship with the deceased and how the deceased died. Their outward behavior may not be any indication of their inner turmoil. Even when they appear to be handling their grief well, it’s still important for adults to initiate discussions with them about their feelings, reassuring them that they are supported and loved, that their thoughts and comments are respected.

Children should be taught positive information regarding death, so they will have healthy perspectives about the life and death process. When appropriate for them, they should be present at death rituals to have their grief addressed. They can experience growth opportunities through their voluntary participation at wakes, funerals, and memorial services. These are occasions for children to bond with family members and friends in celebration of a loved one’s life. This helps children learn the meaning of community, the concept of village members taking care of one another, and beliefs about an afterlife. 

When a family grieves after the death, children can also play an important role in their mutual healing. They can help with the preparations and sending of thank-you notes to those who sent condolences and flowers. They can be involved in a general way with helping to bring physical closure regarding items the deceased left behind. Children’s input can be included in any revisions of holiday rituals that may recognize the deceased. Keeping stories alive about those who have died is another way children can continue family legacies. Through the years, children can be guided in understanding the importance of living a life that culminates in death. Maybe then they will grow up to become adults who welcome discussions about this special event that everyone will eventually experience.

Frances Shani Parker, Author
Becoming Dead Right: A Hospice Volunteer in Urban Nursing Homes is available in paperback and e-book editions in America and other countries at online and offline booksellers.

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