Explaining Death to Children Without Scaring Them for Life
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Explaining Death to Children Without Scaring Them for Life

Explaining Death to Children Without Scaring Them for Life The following 603-word article is available for publication in print or online. There is no cost to use the article, but full credit must be included as it appears at the end of the article. Please let us know in advance of your intent to use the article, and when; then a hot link or two copies of the article must be sent to us after publication.

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Explaining Death to Children Without Scaring Them for Life

by Mary Jo Rapini, MEd, LPC


As parents, we have to engage in many unpleasant and difficult situations. It’s the tough talks that are often remembered most by our children. Explaining death is one of those topics. Our children are exposed to many concepts of death each day. Listen to the news, or watch cartoons in the morning and you will find yourself face-to-face with violence and references to death. Our children have become somewhat desensitized to death, until it happens to a pet, family member, or close friend.

 A pet’s death or a baby bird found dead on the sidewalk can be open opportunities to talk with your child. You must remember that your child sees these incidences in concrete terms. Birds are always in the nest and hamsters stay in a cage. When your child sees something out of the ordinary (a dead bird) he feels sad, and also becomes anxious about what may happen to him. Part of your child’s concrete thinking is his “magical thinking.” He may feel like he will see the animal or loved one the next day. He doesn’t necessarily understand heaven and may think it unusual that a loved animal or family member went there without saying good-bye or taking him along. Just as you teach your child how to brush his teeth and tie his shoes you must teach him how to grieve. Creating a scrap book or looking for old photos of your child with this loved animal or loved person will help him feel sadness so he can move on without guilt or shame. Many parents see their child crying and discourage the reaction. This is actually harmful since it teaches the child to associate shame with his feelings. Although it’s difficult to watch your child cry and not be able to fix the situation, it’s important to allow your child to grieve.

Children watch their parents and learn how to react to death. If a parent cries freely but is still able to remember happy times with the loved person or pet, the child learns it’s okay to do the same. Funerals are upsetting. Usually, your child has little experience with them. It’s wise to help your child prepare for what he may see or hear. If your child is very upset, it may be wise to include him in other family gatherings but not the funeral itself. Talk with your child about it. Many times he knows what will be best for him. Never pressure him into participating. It may be helpful for you to give the child something from the loved one. This will allow your child to have something tangible to hold onto in order to remember the loved one. A watch, a favorite scarf, or even a collar or water dish from a pet will help your child let go in his own time.

 Seeing a parent upset is very difficult for a child. He wants to make you feel better, and may not express his own grief in order to protect you. If you begin to notice your child is depressed, irritable, unable to sleep, fatigued, excessively active, begins having increased fears with other events or has a decrease in appetite, your child may be suffering from delayed grief. This is a good time to talk with your child. Encourage him to go with you to talk with a professional counselor. Both you and your child can use this time as an opportunity to become closer. Talking with your child is a wonderful way to celebrate the life of the loved person or pet that died.

For more information go to: www.maryjorapini.com
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 Mary Jo Rapini, MEd, LPC, is a licensed psychotherapist and co-author with Janine J. Sherman, of Start Talking: A Girl’s Guide for You and Your Mom About Health, Sex or Whatever. Read more about the book at www.StartTalkingBook.com and more about Rapini at www.maryjorapini.com.
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Start Talking features succinct yet lively answers, sample conversations, and real life stories to help open the door to better mother/daughter communication. Rapini and Sherman have compiled more than 113 questions girls (and their moms) routinely ask – or should be asking – about health, sex, body image, and dating.