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When a child asks an adult questions about loss, death or grief, consider these things first:
* What is the child really asking? Watch your child as you explain and you may be able to tell if you are on target. Ask the child more questions if you need to find out what he wants to know.
* Ask, "To whom is this child listening?" Adults in children's lives are all likely to share their own definitions and explanations. Many may not be in sync with yours. Share what you believe and go from there and let the child share as well.
* Make is safe for a child to ask about death, dying and grief.
* Tell the child the truth.
* Answer again and again and then again. Be patient.
* Work on your own definitions. It is okay to say, "I don't know but will find out for you."
* Be surprisable. Be open to being confronted by the wisdom of a child.
Some common words and some definitions:
Casket or Coffin: The special box in which the dead person's body is placed before it is buried.
Most are made of fine wood or metal. There is even a pillow for the head, even though the person inside cannot feel it. Coffins are a type of casket with six sides and is shaped more like the body than a casket is. Coffins are used more in other countries than in the United States. Families can choose to have an open or closed casket at the funeral. With an open casket, people can see the body of the person who died. With a closed casket, the body cannot be seen because the lid is shut. Caskets are often shut when the person has died in a bad wreck or has been sick for so long that the body is damaged.
Dead: When a person's body no longer works, that person is dead. All that is left is the body. The life in that person: the feelings- tasting, moving, eating, going to the bathroom, the thinking and talking, the laughter, the tears - are gone. The body is like a peanut shell with no peanut, or an egg shell with no egg inside. Sometimes adults say "passed away" or "passed", "gone". But remember, dead is dead. It is not like we passed a test or are gone from a room. We may think of a cell phone as dead to mean not working now, but will soon. However this person will not come to life again. Sometimes it is hard to believe that a person is dead, especially if we loved them.
"Dead means that someone has died and their body stopped working. The heart stops beating and breathing stops. The brain doesn't send or receive messages. She no longer can see, hear, touch, taste, smell, eat, play, feel or think. She cannot move. Some dead may look asleep, but she isn't sleeping and she can't wake up." (excerpt from When Dinosaurs Die, by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown.)
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Funeral Service: A special time after a person has died when family, friends and neighbors come together to say goodbye and offer condolences. Sometimes it is in a funeral home. The funeral home is where the body was taken after the person died. Sometimes the funeral is in the church or synagogue. It is a time to remember the person, to say goodbye and thank you to the person who lived. There will be music, flowers and sometimes songs and prayers. Someone may give a eulogy. That is when someone shares about the person who died and what memories they want to talk about. They tell about the person's life. The casket is always present at a funeral. Maybe the casket is open or closed. If the body isn't present it is called a memorial service. Some people who say prayers are clergy. If you are Jewish, your clergy person will be a Rabbi. If you are Catholic, Episcopalian, or Orthodox, your clergy will be a priest. If you are Protestant, it will be a minister. If you are Muslim, your clergy will be an Emir. Some services are short and some very long. Some families like to call the funeral or memorial a Celebration of Life.
Suicide: When a person kills himself or herself on purpose. When a person makes his or her own body stop working.
There are many reasons why people die by suicide. Research tells us now that 95% of people who die by suicide had a mental illness that was diagnosed or was un-diagnosed. At the time of a suicide a person is not thinking about the effect it will cause on their family and friends. Sometimes they think their family and friends will be glad they are dead. This is never, never what happens. A family is always sad and wish that they could have helped the person.
Families feel terrible when someone dies by suicide. Some people try to pretend it was an accident. It is always better to be honest when someone ends their own life. Here is a good way to understand what happens: "Some people's bodies get sick and don't work right. And sometimes a person's brain or mind doesn't work right. They can't see things clearly and they feel the only way to solve their problems is to take their own life- to kill themselves. However, this is never a solution to problems, the only reason they thought of it is that they weren't thinking very clearly. (How do We Tell the Children? by Dan Schafer and Christine Lyons)
It is important to teach children that there are always solutions to any problem. It always helps to share our problems with others and listen to the ways that other people may suggest that we might solve our problem. It is also important as friends of someone who had someone die by suicide that the focus should be on the loss of the person and not on "how" the person died. No matter what someone is still missing having someone in their life. There is a lot more confusion, sadness and anger with a death by suicide. It is helpful if the person can find a suicide survivor group to attend or to go to a suicide survivor web site. Often people want to be with others who have had a similar situation happen.
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