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How to help children cope with a caregiver's death

When Ginny Zywot died in December after losing her battle with cancer, her family and friends grieved, and so did her preschoolers.

Zywot ran a successful preschool called Smart Start out of her Redondo Beach home for two decades. In 2012, she was named LAUP preschool teacher of the year.

One of her young charges was Reese Waldron, who is now in kindergarten. The 6-year-old seemed matter-of-fact when she's asked what happened to Teacher Ginny.  “She passed away,” Reese said. And what is one thing Reese would tell her if she was still here? “That you were a great teacher to me.”

Experts agree that talking to children about death is important, no matter how young they are. But how should parents explain confounding concepts like "never coming back" to a young child?  

Oscar Donoso, a psychologist and mental health specialist at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, suggests keeping it simple.

“The way 3-year-olds, 4-year-olds, preschool-age children understand death is generally not something that is permanent for them yet,” he said.  “Children don’t understand the permanency of death or the finality of death until a little past [age] 5.”

He said children oftentimes cope with death through their play. He keeps Lego figures of kids and family members in his office, as well as an ambulance with a gurney.

“It's a way for children to be able to play something they may have seen,” he said. He calls this giving children a narrative to hold on to.

“They need to hear things over and over again, or will ask the same things over and over again, because they learn through repetition,” Donoso said.

Children can be very perceptive, he adds. When their parents are very upset for a long period, children know something is not right.

“They do look to adults to know how to react, and so they’ll know from their caregiver’s reaction how sad it is for them,” he said.

Books about death with characters kids can relate to are another tool, suggests Ruth Beaglehole, a former preschool teacher from New Zealand and family trauma expert who, for more than four decades, has helped families grieving the loss of a loved one.

The truth can be scary

“Grief processed, stories told, allows the child to have a narrative [about] what happened,” she said. “That will hopefully eliminate the deep trauma that happens when things aren’t explained or secrets are held or lies are told and things aren’t processed.”

Kids should not be shielded from the reality and hurt of death, Beaglehole said, even if it might scare them to know the truth.

“This is not a one-time conversation,” she said. If a relative went to hospital and never came home, months later a child might be afraid to go to the doctor.

Ask them, she advises, “Are you scared that when you go to the doctor that you might not come home like Grandma or Grandma?” She said parents can reassure a child that going to a doctor is different, that the visit helps to keep them healthy. 

Beaglehole also suggests teaching children about death in daily life. Plant flowers and talk about how flowers blossom and then die. “I do think this is why having goldfish, having pets, ... can show the cycle of life,” she said.

Donoso said if a family has a religious faith, it can be helpful in explaining where the deceased has gone, but the child might still need comforting. “Whether it's religious or not, there are still many concepts that can be confusing for a child, like heaven — like it's a place that you go, and that they’re happy now that they're in heaven. Some children will take that very literally and might think that it's a place they can go [to visit],” he said.

Suji Yamauchi, whose daughter Amelia attended Smart Start, said she relied on her faith to help her family through Zywot's death.

“I told them that Teacher Ginny was sick and that she went to be with God. So she’s not here any more, but she’s in heaven,” Yamauchi said.

It's the first time her daughter has known someone so close who has died. “She doesn’t wonder,” Yamauchi said, “because she does have faith that there is heaven.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of Dr Oscar Donoso. KPCC regrets the error.