Teaching toddlers about death


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I just found this website...what a resource!

I have a almost 3 year old who is very bright for her age. My mother has been fighting terminal cancer for the last 2+ years, and it is feeling like the time is coming for her to return to Heavenly Father. We live in Alabama, and my family is all in Utah. I have gone home every few months, spending over a month there at a time, to take care of my mother after illnesses and surgeries. My daughter has been hearing me talk about Grandmas death for the last few days, (she told my dad that she couldnt stay here anymore and she was ready to go home) Any tips on preparing her for my mothers death? We dont know if it will happen tomorrow or next year.

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Brent Barlow wrote this article sometime ago but very useful -

Explaining Death to the Latter-day Saint Child

Brent Barlow

President Joseph F. Smith made the following statement: "Children are sure to be brought into some acquaintanceship with the incident of death, even during the kindergarten period; and it would be a great relief to the puzzled and perplexed conditions of their minds if some intelligent statements of the reason for death were made to them." (Juvenile Instructor, June 1, 1905, p. 336.)

It is evident both from President Smith's statement and daily observation of the Latter-day Saint child that the child is constantly learning about death. Many children's stories, at least in the original versions, have death themes, such as "Snow White," "Little Red Riding Hood," and "The Three Little Pigs." In addition; some children's songs ("Rock-a-Bye Baby") and rhymes ("Humpty Dumpty") may be interpreted by children to refer to death. Contemporary Latter-day Saint children also differ from children of previous generations in that many view a great deal of television, which is heavily imbued with death and death-related incidents. One survey indicated that the average child in the U.S. watches television six hours a day, seven days a week, which is 50 percent more time than he spends in school. Watching television is the second largest activity in many children's lives, second only to sleep. On any given day a child can view several deaths, which compound into literally hundreds and even thousands by the time adulthood is attained. Questions are now being raised about the numerous synthetic, quick deaths children observe in movies or on television. Tonight's villain is killed, only to appear next week on another program in another role, thereby giving the child the impression that death is a temporary, emotionless event.

President Smith also observed: "It is a principle widely accepted that it is not desirable to teach these little ones those things that are horrifying to childish nature. And what may be said of children is equally true in all stages of student life. But death is not an unmixed horror. With it are associated some of the profoundest and most important truths of human life. Although painful in the extreme to those who must suffer the departure of dear ones, death is one of the grandest blessings in divine economy; and we think children should be taught something of its true meaning as early in life as possible." (Ibid. Italics added.)

Children have differing views of death at different ages. In general, few children under the age of three have much comprehension of death, other than being separated from the deceased person, and are primarily concerned about someone caring for their physical, and to some degree, emotional needs. When a child experiences the death of a loved one, he needs to be assured verbally and perhaps by touch that there are others who still love him and will care for him.

Between the ages of about three and six, most children begin to understand death as a separation, but it is often perceived to be temporary or reversible, as symbolized in the fairy tale by the prince kissing Snow White and awakening her from her "sleep." Children during these ages can "kill" each other while playing cops and robbers because of the temporary nature of death.

From the age of six to about eight or nine, the child begins to understand the significance of death for others and the permanence of death during mortality. It is at about the age of nine that most children begin to realize the reality of their own death.

Several books and articles have recently been written with suggestions for explaining death to children. The following general guidelines have been condensed and modified for use by Latter-day Saint parents:

1. Explain that all living things die. This can be easily observed with plants, pets, or any living thing with which the child is acquainted.

2. Discuss death with children before it occurs to someone they love. Much of death education is ex post facto—after the event. It would be helpful for most children to discuss death not only when it occurs, but also at a time when they are not experiencing the loss of a loved one.

3. Explain the permanence of death as far as mortality is concerned. Although there have been several instances reported in Church history in which deceased parents of family members appeared as spirits to mortals, it would be questionable to teach children to anticipate such an event with any degree of certainty when they lose loved ones through death. Once someone dies, it is probable that we will not see that person again during this life.

4. Caution should be used in making analogies about death. Telling a child, for example, that "Grandpa is taking a long journey" may be confusing, since people who go on long journeys usually return. Also, the implication that "he is asleep" is questionable because sleeping people usually awaken.

5. It would be wise to examine carefully the reasons given for death. "She died because she was sick" may be an inadequate answer, since it may cause unrealistic fear of sickness. Not all sick people die. Saying that "he died because he went to the hospital" may cause undue fear of hospitals, because not all people who go to the hospital die. Another commonly used reason is that a person died because he or she was old. What is "old" to a child? Someone has suggested that it may be anyone fifteen years older than the child. A simple statement such as "Grandmother died because her body (or parts of it, such as heart or lungs) ceased to function" may prove to be an adequate response to a child's inquiry as to why grandmother died. Parents should be honest, brief, and matter-of-fact in explaining death to children.

6. One of the most difficult aspects of death education is the theological implications often suggested in death. While our Heavenly Father could have been directly or indirectly involved in a death, and this belief may be consoling to the adult, it is often a difficult phenomenon for the child to understand. A son, for instance, may wonder why his father was "needed on the other side" when he might also have a great need for his father at that particular time. Extreme care should be exercised in this particular area of explaining death to a child.

7. Children, particularly after the age of six or seven, should be allowed, but not forced, to participate in the mourning and funeral processes. Children, as do others, need to work through their own grief and should be allowed, if they desire, to participate in the social or public ceremonies at the time of death. If a child at any age chooses not to participate in the funeral or public mourning, he should not be made to feel guilty or that he has "let the family down."

8. Parents should do all they possibly can to alleviate any guilt a child may experience at the time of death. Sometimes a child will feel responsible for the death of a loved one because he, the child, acted badly or did something inappropriate, and is therefore being punished. If these feelings are carried to an excess, the child may need professional help. If a death, such as that of a grandparent, is equally difficult for all family members, parents may find it helpful to have another adult, a neighbor or relative, to attend or be with the child during the early stages of bereavement or during the funeral, so the child will not feel ignored.

9. Parents should make time available to discuss death sometime after children have experienced the loss of a loved one or a beloved pet. By agreeing to discuss death again at another time, death education becomes an ongoing process and not an isolated event.

10. The initial discussions of death with young children should not include their own death or that of immediate family members. It would probably be more helpful at the beginning to have general discussions about death (a) as a normal process of life, (b) of all living things, and © of other people with whom the child is not so intimately or emotionally involved. Discussions of the child's death or that of parents, brothers, or sisters would best follow at other appropriate times.

In addition to these suggestions, Latter-day Saints should give some additional explanations to their children on at least three other significant aspects of death.

1. Explain that all men, women, boys, and girls have a body that eventually dies and a spirit that never dies (or is immortal). It is absolutely essential that children understand this part of our existence as early as possible. Without such an explanation, it may be extremely confusing to a child to watch a deceased uncle being buried in the ground and then to be told "Uncle Roy is now in heaven."

2. Explain that there is a life after death. While it may be questionable to imply that the child will see a deceased loved one again during mortality, it is certainly advisable to convey to the child our belief of the reuniting of loved ones in a life hereafter.

3. Teach children the reality of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. President Joseph F. Smith stated: "No explanation of death to a child's mind can anywhere be found that is more simple and convincing than is the death of our Master, connected as it is and ever must be with His glorious resurrection. . . . We are born that we may put on mortality, that is, that we may clothe our spirits with a body. Such a blessing is the first step toward an immortal body, and the second step is death. Death lies along the road of eternal progress; and though hard to bear, no one who believes in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and especially in the resurrection, would have it otherwise. Children should be taught early in life that death is really a necessity as well as a blessing, and that we would not and could not be satisfied and supremely happy without it. Upon the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus, one of the grandest principles of the Gospel depends. If children were taught this early in life, death would not have the horrifying influence that it does have over many childish minds." (Juvenile Instructor, op. cit.)

Perhaps this latter statement by President Smith is among the most intelligent statements that could be made to children about death.

Edited by Hemidakota
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