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Introducing Death to Kids Can Help Them Cope Better As Adults

Introducing Kids To Death Can Help Them Cope Better As Adults

Death Terrified Me in Elementary School

From 4th through 6th grade, my elementary classrooms faced the main road. As soon as I heard the familiar high-pitched scream, my stomach flipped, my heart raced, and I held my breath. The ambulance would race down the road; it’s siren mocking me, and I would beg God for it to turn–in a direction away from my house. Only then could I take a breath and return to the busyness of school. If the ambulance continued in the direction of my home, my mind would enter a black hole of dark and ominous thoughts. I was terrified of losing my mother; I was terrified of death; I was terrified of the unknown.

In those last three years of elementary school, two sisters who attended my school were killed in an automobile accident, a classmate lost her father in a small plane crash, while another classmate lost his mother to cancer. Whether at school or at home, there was an eerie silence surrounding these events. Death was uncomfortable–for everyone.

Death Followed Me into High School

The thing about death is that it never goes away. My sophomore year of high school, my grandmother passed, and my soccer coach lost his teenage son. A year later, I lost another classmate to an automobile accident. It was the night of the Sadie Hawkins dance. Our car passed the scene on the way home from dinner, and I remember praying that it wasn’t anyone we knew. Death continued to bully me taunting me with terrifying thoughts of losing my mom.

I Didn’t Know How To Deal With Death

I wish somebody had talked to me. Yet, I can’t blame anyone because how does one explain a concept that it is riddled in mystery?

H.P. Lovecraft states, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

Instead of evoking feelings of angst and anxiety in ourselves and our children, some parents find it easier to ignore the fact that death is an inevitable part of life.

As a child, I felt alone in my fear. As a teacher, I know this fear haunts many of my students. When we are children, the concept of losing a parent or anyone we love is horrifying. It is important, however, that we speak to our children openly and honestly about the emotions surrounding death at an age appropriate level.

I use the word emotions because it is a child’s ability to cope with uncomfortable emotions that creates a resilient adult.

Click here to learn more about the unique needs of grieving children at each stage of development.

Introducing Death to Kids Can Help Them Cope Better As Adults Quieting the fear

Six Suggestions On How Quiet The Fear Of Death

1. Allow Children to Share Their Questions and Feelings

It is tempting to give children trite answers like,

“There is nothing to be scared of.”
“Nothing is going to happen to you, me or daddy.”
or “You go to heaven when you die.”

Instead, children need sincere reassurance. Be present with them, look them in the eye, lean in, validate their feelings, and let them know they are secure right now. As a parent, we don’t need to have all of the answers. Kids know when we are being real and when we are telling them what we think they want to hear. Dr. Lisa Firestone, Director of Research and Education for The Glendon Association states, “The most important thing is to let kids have their feelings. We can help them regulate their emotions with our care and concern.”

2. Teach Children About Their Emotions

Ask children, how does your body feel when you are angry? How do you feel when you are sad or scared? It is critical for children to recognize the physical symptoms of their emotions. Identifying sensations in the body will allow them to label their feeling as fear or sadness, etc. Once emotions are identified, children have the power and choice to stabilize themselves, and this concept is extremely empowering for both children and adults.

3. Help Young Children Identify Their Feelings

If a young child is grieving a loss, validate their emotions and help them name the feeling.
Here’s an example to illustrate how one scenario may play out:

I want Papa Joe to come back.

You wish Papa could come back, and you feel sad.

Is papa coming back?

No, Papa is not coming back.

I want Papa.

You are sad because you wish Papa could come back.

Try to be patient because repetition teaches a child how the world works.

Suggested Read: My Daughter Still Asks “Where Is Pop-Pop?”

4. Show Your Child How to Take Deep Breaths

There is a reason we tell people to take a breath when their emotions are out of control. Deep controlled breathing reconnects us with our body and balances our system. When we focus on our breath, we are no longer focused on the chaotic thoughts swirling in our head. The breath brings us back to the present moment and calms us down.

5. Remind Children That Difficult Emotions Are Normal

In order for children to process through fear or any other emotion, they need to know that it is okay to feel. Parents hurt when their children hurt; however, we don’t do our children any favors when we try to stop their feelings by saying,

“Don’t cry.”
“You don’t really feel that way.”
“You’re being silly/ridiculous.“
or “Stop being scared, angry, sad, etc.”

Let children know that emotions come and go.

Suggested Read: It’s Okay For Everyone To Cry

6. Model How to Live in the Moment

Stop and point out the geometric patterns of flowers, the smell of jasmine in the air, the softness of a puppies fur, or the flavor of tart apples in a homemade pie. In other words, cultivate positive emotions in your children as much as possible. Show children that happiness lies in the everyday moment and not in material things. When negative thoughts are looping in a child’s head, point them out and remind children that staying stuck in thoughts is a choice, even when it may seem like it’s not. It is in their power to bring themselves back to the moment or process through their feelings.

Suggested Read: Finding Gratitude In Life’s Ordinary Moments

It Is Important To Build Resilience In Our Children

As much as we’d like to put this idea aside, our children will be faced with difficulties and challenges in their lifetime, including loss. It is imperative that we build resilience in our children, for it’s how they respond to these obstacles that will determine the quality of their lives.

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