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When a Child's Life Is Cut Short

Ways to help children cope with death

Recently, a difficult situation took place in one of my Buckhead communities. A child passed away. It's one of those situations that deeply wrenches your gut and does not let go for weeks, months or even years.

For a child, the situation can bring about confusion and questions. Unlike adults, they have no frame of reference or no past experiences to draw upon. It's the familiarity for adults that can ease surprise, but for children it's a large, blank slate full of unfamiliarity.

This precious child's life was snuffed out by cancer. It's an especially wrenching event seeing that September is National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, which is observed by CURE, a nonprofit organization begun in 1975 that focuses on improving the care, quality of life, and survival rate of children with cancer.

According to Catherine Boothe, children's minister with , kids can find comfort even during this pain.

"People in part find comfort in habits and rituals," she said.  "Consistency is so important, like a nighttime ritual that involves a blanket, bath, stories and three kisses, for example. When everything seems uncertain, consistency is so important." She even recommended starting new rituals during a period of death, emphasizing the consistent nature of daily life.

"The death of a child can have a far-reaching impact and extend into many communities, like church, school, neighborhoods and work environments," she said. "It also impacts these same environments for the extended family, like grandparents."

"Kids need appropriate ways to express their feelings of grief and understand they aren't alone. They might think their feelings are irrelevant, especially if they can be found alone in their bedrooms.  That's why funerals and life celebrations can be important to kids" as it relates to the grieving process, said Boothe.

She said that parents know their kids the best, but offered the following suggestions to help children grieve healthily:

  • Encourage the child to draw a picture about their feelings for the family who lost a child,
  • The grieving child can write a letter to the person who's passed away or simply describe their feelings through writing,
  • Running can be a healthy expression for some; and,
  • Share stories about the child who has passed away.

Boothe also suggested possibly touring funeral homes in order to prepare your child for a death. This seems especially relevant if a child or parent is suffering, long-term. "So much of the fear is based around the unknown," she added.

In this case, sharing seems very helpful. Parents, what have you done to ease death for your child?

elisa cousins September 05, 2011 at 03:00 PM
Love, love, love. When my son's grandfather passed away last year, due to an illness my inlaws had concealed from him, all I could do was reinforce my love (our love) for him and listen to him talk about his poppa. One piece of advice: do not keep a life threatening illness from your children, they need that very time illness affords them to process the loss, as much as they will need time afterwards.
Beth Okun September 06, 2011 at 03:53 PM
Thanks Elisa! It must have been difficult to watch your son experience this. It sounds like you approached it with an open ear -- congratulations on providing your little one with stability.

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