“It’s okay mommy. It’s okay, I’m right here with you.”
These are words that resonate over and over again in my head. Words spoken by Dae’Anna to her mother, Diamond “Lavish” Reynolds, when police killed Philando Castile this week in Minnesota. Words from a four-year-old child that express such enormous heart at a time of inexplicable and terrifying loss.
Can a young child understand death?
As I mentioned in an earlier post, we sometimes forget the impact upon the children left behind when adults become victims of violence. We also sometimes overlook the enormous toll that children and young adults experience when a parent, sibling, friend, or other loved one dies as a result of illness, accident or violence. According to research, one in nine Americans reports losing a parent before turning twenty years of age. These are each unique losses from which almost no one ever fully overcomes. Furthermore, over 70,000 children also die each year, and over 80% of them have siblings to cope with the grief. By the time a child becomes 18 years of age, 20% of them have likely experienced the death of a loved one.
The understanding of death doesn’t come easily or equally. Infants have little understanding of death, though they do recognize the presence or absence of a parent figure. Toddlers and young children may not understand the finality and permanence of death, and thus can have a magical belief that a deceased loved one will one day return. These toddlers as well as older children can also place blame on themselves, erroneously believing that they were somehow responsible for the deaths. Superstitions and belief in the boogeyman can aggravate guilt as well as fear. Older children and teens may understand the permanence of death, yet they may persist in feeling guilty for surviving when a loved one has died. They may have also previously held the belief that death is only for older people – a belief shattered when a child’s friend or peer or sibling dies.
Articulating feelings of grief is a slow process. Initially signs of grief will appear in behaviors such as disbelief, shock, and anger. Children may no longer be interested in schoolwork or activities that previously brought much joy. Children may become anxious and overly concerned with safety and health. They may feel another death is imminent. They may frequently cry or instead be exceedingly quiet and unwilling to speak. Physical symptoms often occur including headaches, stomachaches, fatigue, and lack of appetite. Children and young adults may also be at risk of self-harm as a result of grief. Processing grief requires patient and loving adult support and understanding.
It’s obvious that a toddler like Dae’Anna has the loving support of her mother, as well as her extended family. I hold much hope that she will grow up to become a strong and secure adult, especially in viewing her extraordinary emotional intelligence to stay composed at a time of terror by reaching out to comfort her own mother. She no doubt was gifted with this emotional intelligence from her mother Diamond who herself remained acutely composed in an unimaginable situation.
Each day children experience the painful deaths of loved ones. Deaths that will forever change their experience of life. No type of loss is more painful or of greater importance. Yet, experiencing loss through violence adds an additional layer of burden to one’s life. A complexity that casts a long dark shadow over one’s trust and hope for humanity. This is a challenge that requires one to gather all possible strength to meet it with love, not hate.
We can do our share to help children who have suffered grief. Many suggestions are similar to those I gave in a recent post dealing with trauma. Further suggestions included here are picture books about grief as well as websites discussing childhood grief.
Regarding picture books, it is true that a picture can speak a thousand words. For children experiencing the death of a loved one, neither the child nor the grieving surviving loved ones may always be able to find the right comforting words. Sharing books about grief and death together – even for older children – can assist in building resilience so needed for both parties during difficult times.
It is also necessary to realize that grief is a process with unknown duration. Each child must be given full freedom to process grief in his or her own time and in his or her own way. Never rush children nor expect them to “pull themselves together” or articulate their loss. Below I list two websites as well as some book resources that may help.
NOTE: If you are the parent of a child who has suffered grief and you are concerned about the mental or physical health of your child, please contact a medical professional to make an appointment for a full assessment.
- How Children Understand Death (American Academy of Pediatrics)
- Talking To Children About Death (Grief Speaks)
Below is a brief sampling of poignant picture books dealing with death (I’ve tried to indicate whether the characters are human or animal). Please pre-read to assess your particular child’s sensitivity:
- My Father’s Arms Are A Boat (Stein Erik Lunde)– mother’s death/human
- Everett Anderson’s Goodbye (Lucille Clifton) – father’s death/human
- Cry, Heart, But Never Break (Glenn Ringtved)– grandmother’s death/human
- The Flat Rabbit (Bardur Oskarsson) – all animal story
- The Heart and the Bottle (Oliver Jeffers) – grandfather’s death/human
- Duck, Death and the Tulip (Wolf Erlbruch) – all animal story
- The Sad Book (Michael Rosen) – child’s death (son)/human [a book for parents, but can be useful for teens and young adults]
- The Tenth Good Thing About Barney (Judith Viorst) –pet dog’s death/human
- I’ll Always Love You (Hans Wilhelm) – pet dog’s death /human
- Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs (Tomie dePaola)– great-grandparent’s death/human
Additional National Child Traumatic Stress Network Book Resources:
- Books for children and teens who have experienced the death of a sibling
- Books for children and teens who have experienced the death of a loved one
This article is also posted here: The Huffington Post.