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Section 1
Talking with Children about Death

CEU Question 1 | CEU Test | Table of Contents | Introduction | Grief
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On this track, we will discuss how to introduce a child to an expected death.  Four ways parents can introduce a child to an expected death are taking a death history, using correct language, reading about death with the child, and looking for death education opportunities.  You may consider playing this track for the parents of a grieving child if you think they may benefit from hearing how the four ways parents can introduce a child to an expected death helped Jean and Chuck.

#1 Death History
Jean and Chuck scheduled an appointment with a colleague of mine to talk about an expected death.  Chuck stated to the therapist, "My mother has been sick for several months now.  She has bone marrow cancer and is deteriorating rapidly.  The doctors said she only has a few weeks left.  Jean and I are concerned about our kids.   Nathan is ten and Lindsey is twelve.  They are very close to Grandma Barb and are really going to miss her.  Is there anything we can do to help our kids when Grandma dies?" 

The therapist stated, "Before you begin talking to your child about Grandma Barb’s death, be sure you know where you stand.  You may want to take stock of your own death history."  To take stock of his own death history, Chuck asked himself the following eight questions.  As I list these questions, you can decide if a parent you are treating could benefit from taking a death history. 

8 Death History Questions Chuck Asked Himself

-- 1. "What was my first experience with death?"
-- 2. "How did I learn about death?"
-- 3. "How did I feel about my early death experiences?"
-- 4. "Was I protected from the reality of death as a child?"
-- 5. "Was I prepared for what I saw at my first funeral?"
-- 6. "Was I discouraged from displaying grief emotionally?"
-- 7. "How did religious beliefs influence my understanding of death?"
-- 8. "What were my childhood superstitions about death?"

Chuck stated, "When I was a kid, I was told that whenever you heard an owl hoot, someone would die.  I spent whole summers sleeping with my blanket over my head so I wouldn’t hear an owl.  I was so worried I might accidentally kill someone by hearing an owl.  I also remember my first death experience.  I was nine.  In the middle of the night I heard the squeal of tires.  When I looked outside I saw my dad carrying my dog from the road.  She had been hit by a car.  The driver tried to stop, but just kept driving after he hit my dog.  I was so mad.  Then I cried and realized how much I would miss that dog." 

Chuck’s therapist stated, "Recalling your personal death history could help you prepare to talk to your children about Grandma Barb dying.  The more you understand your own death history the better you will be able to help Nathan and Lindsey understand the reality of death." 

Are you treating a grieving child whose parents could better help their child understand death by first understanding death themselves?

#2 Correct Language
Second, Chuck’s therapist stated, "When you tell your children that Grandma Barb is going to die, be sure to use the correct language.  Don’t use euphemisms like ‘we are going to lose her’ or ‘she’s going to go to sleep.’  These phrases are misleading to children.  Imagine how Nathan and Lindsey might interpret those euphemisms.  Nathan may spend years waiting for Grandma to wake up." 

To help Chuck and Jean ensure that they used the correct language, the therapist stated, "Practice with one another by talking about how Grandma Barb is dying.  Use words like ‘dead’, ‘dying’, and ‘cancer.’  Using correct language, explain to Nathan and Lindsey what will happen after their grandmother dies.  Then, ask if they heard any words they didn’t understand.  You can help the children understand death by simply explaining what these words mean."  Is the parent of the child you are treating using euphemisms to protect their child from  the reality of death?  Could the parent benefit from using correct language to explain death?

#3 Read About Death With the Child
Would you agree that, in addition to taking a death history and using correct language, reading about death with a child can play an important role in helping children understand death?  Chuck’s therapist recommended two books that Chuck and Jean could add to Nathan and Lindsey’s library. 

The therapist stated, "Charlotte’s Web introduces the topic of death and can be appreciated by both children.  Lindsey may be to old for Aarvy Aardvark Finds Hope, but Nathan can gain understanding from it if you stop often to translate the animal story into human terms and then apply the ideas to your own situation." 

Would you agree, however, that some books may create more problems than they solve when it comes to helping children understand death?  For example, one book Chuck’s therapist found portrayed death as an old man with a book of names.  When a person’s name came up, that person died.  Clearly, this kind of portrayal is frightening to children.

#4 Death Education Opportunities
Fourth, Chuck’s therapist asked him to be alert for death education opportunities.  The therapist stated, "It may be as simple as explaining a dead house plant.  Anything that can help your child understand death and lacks the emotional impact that the death of a loved one will have will work." 

At a later session, Chuck stated, "Nathan and I were walking in the park when we saw a dead bird.  I figured that would be a good death education opportunity, so I nudged the bird to show Nathan that it would not respond.  Then, I started explaining the bird’s absence of life.  I said, ‘Look, Nathan.  The bird can’t fly or see or eat or go to the bathroom.  Because it’s dead it will never do those things again.’  Nathan started looking real sad, so I told him that it was okay to be sad. I said, ‘It makes me sad, too, Nathan.’  Finally, I discussed our options with Nathan.  I told him we could leave the bird there or bury it.  Nathan wanted to bury it." 

Clearly, helping children understand that death is real can help introduce a child to an expected death.  As Chuck found, do you agree that this was a learning experience for Nathan?

On this track we have discussed how to introduce a child to an expected death.  Four ways parents can introduce a child to an expected death are taking a death history, using correct language, reading about death with the child, and looking for death education opportunities. 

On the next track we will discuss the first three stages of development.  They are ages two to six, ages six to nine, and ages ten to thirteen.  We will also discuss the three key concepts of death as stated by Dr. David Schonfeld.  The three key concepts of death are "nonfunctionality" of the body, death is final and death is universal.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Domino, J. L., Whiteman, S. E., Davis, M. T., Witte, T. K., & Weathers, F. W. (2020). Sudden unexpected death as a traumatic stressor: The impact of the DSM–5 revision of Criterion A for posttraumatic stress disorder. Traumatology. Advance online publication. 

Koocher, G. P. (1974). Talking with children about death. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 44(3), 404–411. 

Oosterhoff, B., Kaplow, J. B., & Layne, C. M. (2018). Links between bereavement due to sudden death and academic functioning: Results from a nationally representative sample of adolescents. School Psychology Quarterly, 33(3), 372–380.

Online Continuing Education QUESTION 1
What are four ways parents can introduce a child to an expected death? To select and enter your answer go to CEU Test.

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