Helping young children understand death

Activities and resources to help young children grieve and remember.

A friend of one of my young children’s died of an aneurysm on the playground. For several weeks after, my child played funeral with her dolls. One summer my siblings and I created a cemetery and buried every dead animal we could find. We held funerals for goldfish, flattened birds found on the road and mice that had been trapped by my parents. We took turns playing the part of the minister and the grieving family. Death is a difficult concept for young children and just when children need the adults around them to answer questions, those same adults who are also grieving may not know how to respond to children’s questions.

Books are one of the easiest ways to introduce or help explain a topic, especially an emotional topic such as death. The following books are resources recommended by Michigan State University Extension to read with children and to give families ideas for activities to honor and remember loved ones.

  • Laurie A. Kanyer. 25 Things to Do When Grandpa Passes Away, Mom and Dad Get Divorced, or the Dog Dies. Seattle: Parenting Press, 2004. This book offers education to parents or other adults who are working with grieving children. The second half of the book describes 25 activities to help children experiencing loss and include art and craft activities as well as high-energy outdoor activities. Ages six through 11.
  • After a Death: An Activity Book for Children, 2007
  • After a Murder: A Workbook for Grieving Kids,. 2002
  • After a Suicide: A Workbook for Grieving Kids, 2001. These workbooks encourage children to express their thoughts and feelings through a variety of activities, including drawings, puzzles, word games and helpful stories and advice from other kids and adults. Ages nine and up. Interactive workbooks in which children learn from other children who have experienced a death. The Dougy Center (Portland, Ore.)
  • Amy Hest. Remembering Mrs. Rossi. Illustrated by Heather Maione. Somerville, Mass: Candlewick Press, 2007. Annie Rossi is eight years old when her mother, a sixth-grade teacher, dies. Annie is helped when her mother’s class creates a special memory book about her (included at the end of this novel). Ages nine through 12.

These activities may be geared for children, but working with your children or grandchildren will also allow you to grieve in a way you may not have thought about before. Our heads may be filled with memories and we may spend time leafing through photo albums, yet the process of talking about your loved one, telling stories and hearing what children remember can bring a very different and wonderful perspective to your memories.

Creating a memory book can be as simple or complicated as you choose, there is no right or wrong way when it comes to what you use for the book or what you decide to include. Don’t expect to finish your memory book all in one sitting. Children’s attention spans will generally determine how much time is spent at each work session. Events such as holidays, birthdays and weddings are triggers for memories and you may find yourself working on the memory book together over several months. This is a very personal project and needs to be child directed. Include children’s efforts without corrections. A wonderful resource for making a memory book that even supplies questions to ask children can be found online at Gail Grenier’s Blog Spot. Additional resources for families include the Fred Rogers website. This website provides child development based, age appropriate information to lend families the tools to help them through one of the most challenging losses experienced. You may also find more articles on other topics related to child development at the Michigan State University Extension website.

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