Your Own Conceptions
Prior to discussing death with children, I find it to be important to know one’s attitude towards death. First one must reflect on their own thoughts and feelings regarding someone they lost. Second, it is important to keep up with the latest research regarding the discussion of death with children and supporting grieving children. This will allow one’s self to be able to be comfortable talking about death. A person must be observant of their own thoughts and feelings and only provide the kind of help that they can do. One thing most people seem to forget is to find help for themselves because a person cannot help others if they cannot help themselves first (Boles & Kronaizl, 2019).
A child’s understanding of death evolves from infancy and toddlerhood with most children understanding that death is a changed state by the age of four. By the age of five and ten children by now have mastered a mature concept of death. Near the age of five or six children begin to understand that death is irreversible and that their loved ones cannot come back to life. Around the ages of five and eight children have started to think about how the human body functions or how we sustain life. In the early school years, children have come to understand that death affects all living things which include, insects, people, animals, and plants. Around the age of seven and ten every concept about death has been learned. It is important to remember that not all children develop the same way as others with some taking longer to understand the concept of death or resisting and not acknowledging the mature concepts of death (DeSpelder & Strickland, 2010).
Family is the first source of information about death in our society. The beliefs and values of parents are transferred to their children through daily routines. These routines become lessons about death and are learned in the family and conveyed to the children by the actions of the parents and the words that they associate with those actions. There is no understanding without the use of actions and words together. Some of these actions and words are combined into messages that are conveyed directly to the children. Messages such as, this is what happens when people die, or this is what we do when someone we love dies. We also convey messages indirectly towards children without knowing. Messages such as, replacing a family’s pet without talking about it, by quickly replacing the pet the child is not allowed enough time to understand what he/she is feeling and cannot understand the loss. The child could start to believe that anyone is replaceable and if they lose either their mom or dad then they would just get another one (DeSpelder & Strickland, 2010).
Children may have difficulty talking about their feelings or simply just do not know the words to express how they are feeling. Children will feel confused, frustrated, sad and angry when they are grieving. Talk to the child and let them know that everyone feels the same way when someone they love dies and at times crying is a normal way of dealing with sadness and grief. By doing this the adult is reinforcing to the child that people will cry when they are sad. Children sometimes believe that they may be the cause of the illness or trauma that has happened to the child. They will suggest that if they were to act good then their loved one will get better and not die. This is a type of wishing that is seen in early childhood and into adolescence. The child must be directly reassured that they did not cause the problem and nothing they do will change the outcome (Karns, 2002). According to Goldman (2004), there are several interventions that are useful for helping children and adolescents to express themselves. They can create worry lists, write a letter to the loved one or about the loved one, worry and safe boxes, drawing, painting, and poetry are all ways to help children express their feelings.
Children can learn about death through pretending or role-playing, in which the child will act out specific scenes. Scenes such as, doing CPR on a doll or conducting surgery on a stuffed animal. Playing pretend can sometimes become violent when the child starts to simulate using guns or is suffering from a sort of trauma that they have seen happen, be it on tv or in person. An adult could at this point play pretend with them and follow the child’s lead and they will discover questions and misinformation that the child may have about certain experiences they may shave witnessed (Karns, 2002).
In educating children and adolescents about death it is a good idea to use different types of media such as books, songs, poems, tv shows that talk about death. When using books, it is important to share the right information about books with the right themes to the child and adolescent’s mental development. There are many tv shows targeted towards children that can help explore the issues of death and grieving. Tv shows such as, “Sesame Street”, by working with researchers, providers, and parents as they focus on the most current and pressing needs of children. Their website has all sorts of information to help grieving children when someone they love dies and much more.
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Music and song have been used as an alternative means of communication for a long time. Children and adolescents in various settings can create art to increase their sense of control, distract them from pain, and decrease stress. Art provides an outlet for emotional exploration and expression (Hajar, 2015). Music can be used as a way to help grieving children relieve their fears and anxiety, it can also be a distraction from pain and provide comfort. According to Zanders (2018), music therapy is a process where the therapist helps the client to optimizes the client’s health and by using various facets of musical experience and the relationship that forms from it. The type of music that is used creates change within the child or adolescent so that the melody, harmony, rhythm, texture, and tonality become a part of who the person is.
In supporting a grieving child attention needs to be given to the developmental manifestations of grief at each developmental stage. Infants and toddlers, for example, will express their grief by protesting and having temper tantrums. They will also become distressed by the absence of the person that has died, marked by shifts in mood and a regress in skills such as, walking talking, and toilet training. Grieving children at these stages require constant presence by the surviving parent. In school-aged children and adolescent’s grief can manifest itself in physical sickness such as becoming irritable. At these stages, their language skills are increasing, and it would be best to incorporate literature during interventions (Boles & Kronaizl, 2019).
The goal of most support groups is to help children cope with the death of someone close to them. The leaders of these support groups must be comfortable with their own losses and comfortable to listen and talk with children about death. The leader must also be comfortable not knowing all the answers to every question that’s asked. It is important to give clear and accurate information as most children will have developmental issues and can result in some confusion. It can be difficult for some children and adolescents to just sit and talk about their grief, worries, and fears with adults. Respecting a child’s silence at these times and not forcing them to open is a good idea, also letting the child know that you can assist them in any manner that is comfortable with them. If the child prefers one on one instead of being in a group than that is the best route to choose (Heath et al, 2008).
It is important to adapt information about death to the child’s maturity and developmental level in support groups. Children and adolescents understand perspectives with more detail and at this level of development are aware of death. Leaders of the support group should show their care and concern by listening and genuinely expressing their desire to assist. It is important to encourage communication in the group for example, I need your help in understanding what you are feeling. By communicating like this it can help the child open more to the leader of the group (Heath et al, 2008).
Implementing Literature as a Social Worker
As a future social worker, first I need to recognize that grief is individual, variable, and complex. For grieving children and adolescents to move forward they must engage and meet the challenges brought about by loss and grief. They must acknowledge the reality of the loss by working through the pain and emotions that follow death. The must find a way to live without the one who is gone by being sociable at their own pace. Each of these tasks can provide an opportunity for myself to assist in their management of grief. I could use what I learned from my research to create support programs that work with schools. As a future social worker, it would be important to keep current with both research and practice advancements and as my experience in the subject develops, I could contribute my own observations, understanding, and research to the expanding social work knowledge base.
Research Relate to the Last Dance
DeSpelder & Strickland (2010), tells us that experiencing death is rare for some people, but it has a significant place in our society. Death is not an easy subject to talk about, especially with children. As we grow older, we integrate many experiences of death and our concepts and emotions about death start to resemble those of adults. A child’s understanding of death changes over time, as with other aspects of human development. Understanding death requires our beliefs, attitudes, and knowledge to be reevaluated by our experiences with death, which evolves throughout our entire life cycle.
Questions or Concerns
I do question the awareness of death education in the community and in schools. I do not think many who suffered from a loss would consider taking a death education class or even know it exists. I shared to a few of my associates at work and they were surprised that I was taking a class such as this. I think if I were in their shoes, I would be surprised that they taught a class such as this. Death is not something most people talk about, but we do share in the experience when it is reported on the television, newspapers, and the internet. I do think with the number of mass shootings that is going these days death education should be in the foreground instead of the background.
My Own Experience
I have not experienced death education in school growing up. If I did experience death education, I do not remember when this happens or the reason why. I would assume if there was a death at school, they would have a moment of silence to think about the student. Then the teacher would explain to the class they have someone special here at the school if they feel like they need to talk to a professional about the situation. It would take place during school hours and in a designated room. This would be a group support structure with everyone in a circle and going one by one and expressing what they are feeling. Most students would out of it or ask for one on one meeting. Parents would be informed about the services they will be given to students, communicating by email or phone call.
Recommendations for Improvement
I would recommend that more effort should be devoted to understanding the differences in people’s beliefs toward death and developing programs that are flexible enough to accommodate these different beliefs or views. In addition to dedicated professionals, volunteers should contribute their time and energy to provide emotional and practical support to those close to them and not close to them. To be appreciative towards beliefs and cultures, death education should always incorporate other cultures and religions when talking about death. It would be a good way to be open to other ideas that can influence future knowledge of death education. People from different backgrounds should join to get the attention of policymakers and ordinary citizens so that we can remove barriers to good care created by laws, regulations, organizational practices, and lack of supportive community resources.
Develop A Working Group
If I were instructed to develop a working group on improving death education at a school, I would invite school-based mental health professionals to prepare classroom presentations. The mental health professional can share information about grief which can help fortify students for future challenges. Classroom guidance activities could be created to provide an opportunity for teaching and modeling healthy grief and coping skills for students that want to participate. To initiate a discussion and build interest on this topic of grief I would first, use brief movie clips. These clips would provide examples of grief and can support the student’s group activities and provide a point of discussion. After showing a video clip, the students would role-play similar scenarios from the clips to help students and teachers understand how to appropriately respond to others who are grieving. Some small classroom activities we could do is, create a family album or a family genogram. Another option is to draw a bridge with several support pillars, representing family, friends, teachers, and other adults who support students (Heath, et al., 2008). My general is to create a community of support between the students and teachers so that they can talk to each other comfortably. To be able to express yourself you need to feel comfortable in any setting you are at.
After doing some research I found a national organization called “The National Alliance for Grieving Children” (NAGC). The (NAGC) is a nonprofit organization that raises awareness about the needs of children and adolescents who are grieving a death. They provide education and resources for anyone who supports them. Through their collective voice and partners, they educate, advocate and raise awareness about childhood bereavement. The organization is comprised of professionals, institutions, and volunteers who facilitate the mental, emotional and physical health of grieving children and their families. Their mission is to raise awareness about the needs of children and teens grieving a death and provide education and resources to anyone who wants to support them. They also believe no child should have to grieve alone and no matter where they live or their circumstances, they will have the support and resources they need to deal with the loss in their lives. Through the (NAGC) I found a local organization that helps with bereaved children called “A Caring Hand”. A Caring Hand is a non-profit organization based out of New York. They are dedicated to serving grieving children, teens, and caregivers, as well as helping teachers and professionals find information and a community of support. Their peer support program teaches children and their parents and caregivers coping skills to use for grief and throughout life. In their program, grieving children and caregivers will learn healthy ways to express their feelings and share memories with people who understand what they are feeling. The grieving children in the program will discover they can be a kid again and the caregivers will understand their own feelings, their child’s feelings, and how to be comfortable with a child dealing with grief.
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The best way to involve these organizations is to have them come into the school and train the staff and teachers in working with bereaved children. The (NAGC) can bring awareness to the community in support of grieving children, teens and their families. They also have national support programs. Programs like Camp Erin, which is a bereavement program for youth grieving the death of a significant person in their lives. Children and teens ages 6-17 attend a weekend camp experience that combines the traditional camp activities normally in go away camps with grief education and emotional support for all families. Grief professionals and trained volunteers lead this program. Caring Hand Organization has an 11-week group program for children, teens, and caregivers in which they can learn from each other and discover new strategies for coping. In this group program, caregivers will meet each other and discuss parenting issues and how to manage their own grief. The children and teens will play games and do art and writing activities based on grief related themes. Caregivers meet to discuss parenting issues and how to manage their own grief. Within a supported environment, the children and teens will feel safe and be able to share their feelings while having fun.
- A Caring Hand. (n.d.). Retrieved July 11, 2019, from https://www.acaringhand.org/copy-of-home
- Boles, J., & Kronaizl, S. G. (2019, January-February). Discussing Death with Children: A Developmental Approach. Pediatric Nursing, 45(1), 47+. Retrieved from https://link-galegroup-com.lehman.ezproxy.cuny.edu/apps/doc/A576851334/HRCA?u=lehman_main&sid=HRCA&xid=5f34b4dc
- DeSpelder L. A. & Strickland A. L. (2010). The Last Dance: Encountering Death and Dying. (9th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education.
- Goldman, L. (2004, April). Counseling with children in contemporary society. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 26(2), 168+. Retrieved from https://link-galegroup-com.lehman.ezproxy.cuny.edu/apps/doc/A116142139/HRCA?u=lehman_main&sid=HRCA&xid=e8317e86
- Hajar, R. (2015). Art and healing. Heart Views, 16(3), 116. Retrieved from https://link-galegroup-com.lehman.ezproxy.cuny.edu/apps/doc/A428504492/HWRC?u=lehman_main&sid=HWRC&xid=0f2c2fef
- Heath, M. A., Leavy, D., Hansen, K., Ryan, K., Lawrence, L., & Sonntag, A. G. (2008). Coping with grief: Guidelines and resources for assisting children. Intervention in School and Clinic, 43(5), 259-269. Retrieved from http://lehman.ezproxy.cuny.edu:2048/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.lehman.ezproxy.cuny.edu/docview/211731599?accountid=27880
- Karns, J. T. (2002). Children’s Understanding of Death. Journal of Clinical Activities, Assignments & Handouts in Psychotherapy Practice, 2(1), 43. https://doi-org.lehman.ezproxy.cuny.edu/10.1300/J182v02n01_05.
- Sesame Street in Communities. (n.d.). Retrieved July 11, 2019, from https://sesamestreetincommunities.org/
- The National Alliance for Grieving Children. (n.d.). Retrieved July 11, 2019, from https://childrengrieve.org/
- Zanders, M. L. (2018, August). Music as Therapy Versus Music in Therapy. Journal of Neuroscience Nursing, 50(4), 218+. Retrieved from https://link-galegroup-com.lehman.ezproxy.cuny.edu/apps/doc/A548322615/HWRC?u=lehman_main&sid=HWRC&xid=fe4b4e3b
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