Helping Children Spiritually Cope With Dying And Death


1947-2014 (Archived)
Kenneth J. Doka, M.Div., Ph.D.

Senior Consultant, Hospice Foundation of America

As children encounter illness, loss and grief -- whether their own or someone close to them -- they seek to understand those events and to make sense of their experiences. This inevitably is a spiritual process as they turn to their beliefs, faith narratives, rituals and practices. They may not yet have the cognitive capacity to reach conclusions, yet they yearn for an explanation of events that are sometimes difficult, if not impossible, for even adults to answer. Their questions may show innocence and naiveté. For example, when her maternal grandmother died, my 3-year-old granddaughter took comfort from the belief that even though her grandmother was no longer physically present on earth, she would watch over her from heaven. However, this led to a very practical concern: Would her grandmother be able to see her on the toilet -- a potent issue as she was becoming toilet trained? We reassured her that her Grandma would not look at her in these very private moments.

Children as young as 2 or 3 years old are trying to make sense of their world, and inevitably they are encountering their spirituality. Illness, grief and loss are often part of their worlds as well, so their spiritual development helps shape how they grapple with issues for which they want a concrete explanation. Often it is these questions -- Why did grandma have to die? Why is there illness? What happens to you after you die? -- that spur a child's interest in spiritual questions and explanations.

In his classic work, The Spiritual Life of Children, Dr. Robert Coles studied the ways that children used their spirituality to reflect on these questions. Coles was trained as a psychiatrist by Erich Lindemann, famous for his initial work on grief. As Coles worked in the 1950s with healthy children who had been stricken by polio, he was instructed by Lindemann to listen carefully to the ways that child's spirituality helped him or her adapt to this encounter with illness and mortality. Coles found that their spiritual stories, whether from the Bible or the Quran, helped them look not only upward but inward.

Coles moved away from the stage theories of spiritual development so prevalent in the literature at that point. Such theories stressed what children are capable of understanding at different levels at given ages. Coles shifted the paradigm by emphasizing that faith a process is not just what the child can know but what the child is trying to understand.

Coles employs a useful metaphor. Children, Coles claims, are "spiritual pilgrims or pioneers." By that, Coles means that children are trying to make sense of their world without the cognitive-spiritual maps that adults possess. Their sense-making is a spiritual work in progress -- a continued exploration in a territory they do not fully know or understand.

In that quest, Coles found, children often attempt to apply the broad understandings that have been conveyed to them within their spiritual traditions. Children raised in the Christian tradition, for example, often reflected on the incarnation, taking comfort from the reality that Jesus really knew what it was like to struggle with childhood. To Islamic children, surrendering to the will of Allah was a major theme, while Jewish children looked to the moral precepts of their faith to guide them through life.

Coles' findings reaffirm two important lessons for the adults present in a child's life when that child is trying to make sense of illness, grief and loss. The first is to respect the process and engage in dialog with the questioning child. The child's questions should be taken seriously. This is an excellent opportunity for parents and guardians to share the ways that their own spiritual beliefs help them deal with the same issues that are encountered throughout the life cycle.

One parent, for example, was questioned by her 6-year-old son on her own grief. If grandpa is in happy in heaven, why do you cry whenever you talk about him? Her response was honest, simple, appropriate and reassuring as the child tried to make sense of both his faith and feelings. She told him: I do believe that grandpa is in heaven. It comforts and helps me to know that he is with God and no longer in pain. I just miss him so much.

Everyone has some set of spiritual beliefs even if they do not accept theism, or the practice of incorporating a belief in a higher power or God. It is important to share those spiritual beliefs with your child as well. For example, a parent might not believe in heaven, reincarnation or any form of afterlife, but that parent may still take comfort in the memories that he or she has of a person or find solace in a sense of pride based in the legacy of a deceased individual. Such memories and legacies can be remembered and celebrated.

It is also important to take care in presenting romantic explanations rooted in spirituality to a child, because children often interpret such stories literally. I once counseled a 7-year old boy who was acting out after the death of his friend -- a death due to a car accident that this boy witnessed. He had been told that his friend was good and that God wanted him to be angel in heaven. This surviving child wanted to make it clear to the Deity that he would not be good material for any prospective angel. The romantic stories we may weave may do more harm than good. It is best to simply and honestly share your own spirituality with a questioning child.

This post is adapted from Living with Grief®: Spirituality and End-of-Life Care, available from the Hospice Foundation of America's bookstore. This book is a companion piece to the Spirituality and End-of-Life Care educational program.
This is an interesting article, how do Sikhs explain death and dying to children?

Do we say the deceased is with Akal Purakh? Or we do we find ourselves just saying in the West he/she is in heaven now, do we believe in heaven, if we do then we must also believe in hell, that goes against Sikhi, or there is numerous re carnations until we blend with the Almighty. That is bit difficult to say to a young child or is it?

We come from the light and then we go back to the light, we come with nothing and go back with nothing, other than the Nam. Should we protect children or let them be exposed to all the rituals of death, I allowed my 5 year old press the button to commence cremation of his grandmother who was like a mother to him. With hindsight, I regret this, making sense of death I brought amazon books for children on dealing with death of grandparent. I knew all the theories of death and dying, but there some really good children's good and coupled with basic Sikhi children learn and move on.

We have no counselling service in Gurdwaras, no grieving support, only the relatives who come every day for a week for chat and then usually never ask about you again.

There needs so much to be done, those that have the money to do things in the community, don't usually have the understanding of the needs, those who have understanding don't have the influence or money.

Anyway, just rattling. apologies for any mistakes in understanding.
No matter what our age, I think we all struggle to come to terms with death.

Death has become a taboo in our society because of how much materialistic importance we have given our bodies. Instead of seeing our bodies as being separate from our souls, we see them as being the same, we see ourselves as being our body.

Our soul is eternal and grieving those gone is normal and natural. They say time heals, but when it comes to death I have found that this is not the case. I think this is something we can't prepare for, but if you have the right mindset you will see the bigger picture and realise that we're all one and we all have to go, so spend your life trying to find inner-peace and your own spirituality.

Life is painful, dealing with death is painful. As long as we deal with the grief accordingly and don't dip into severe depression, we'll be fine.

After all, death is part of life, we come and we go.

And, it's ok to have our down days where we remember those that once lived and cherish our memories of them. Appreciate the good times and live your life creating some memories that others can remember you by... so be good :)
good advice, will try and be good:)

No one can escape death, the recent Tsunami that wiped out a whole village, actually had 10 metre barriers to prevent a tsunami, and had regular practise alarms in an event of a tsunami. We cannot prevent or prepare for what might happen any time in terms of physical barriers, but remember that we are 'dead' already to the world and try and live for the One:) the One in all.

what use is death if we are already dead?? is that what it means to be Gurmukh?

To be dead while alive, then death cannot touch us.


1947-2014 (Archived)
what use is death if we are already dead?? is that what it means to be Gurmukh?

To be dead while alive, then death cannot touch us.

Gurukameet and Englighten me jios, So far your comments are going right to my heart. I share your questions. The above is what we say: if the ego is dead, then the assault of death on the body, physical dying, means nothing. Everything lies in our relationship with the Sat. do we explain this to a small child of 5, or even 10 years of age. Think of it! It is so abstract.

I think we do not often have built in ways to counsel and support because these are ideas we do not understand ourselves fully, and can only accept that somehow someday we will understand. to explain to a child, or be helpful to other adults, when we ourselves are still unsure?
It is not that difficult spnadmin, it is really simple, what is not is making the network of support happen, when there is no will to do so.

I wrote this for sikh children's book competition, they liked it but it did not win:

The big beautiful light and me
Narrator: Once upon a time there existed a bright light. A big beautiful light and that was all. Like the sun it shone and gave love and happiness. On that big beautiful light there existed lots of little lights, like sparks. All the little sparks loved being near the big beautiful light but some the sparks got further and further away. They longed to return closer to the light because that was where they were the happiest
‘Little spark: I am getting further and further away from the light and I feel really sad, but I am happy and warm’
Then one day all this changed, the little spark came out into the world as a beautiful girl. She was the youngest out of five little sparks. Everyone was sad; they wanted her to be a different kind of spark. But she sparked so beautifully they forgot.
Big Beautiful Light: I know you are sad to be away from me, but do not worry, I will take care of you and whenever you need me, I will be there for you, I will always look after you’.
Narrator: Have you ever felt sad, if you do, remember that the big beautiful light loves you, always.
When the little girl was a toddler she moved to a different country where there were no animals everywhere and lovely skies and fields. She moved far far away, where there was lots of rows and rows of houses, that looked like trains and would one day ride away, again.
Little spark: I feel a little bit lost and confused, this is not what I am used to , the people here are different, everything is so different.
Narrator: Big beautiful light looked upon her spark and smiled.
Big Beautiful Light: Dearest little spark, don’t be lost and confused, remember little spark if you ever need to be with me you will find me in the Gurdwara, there sit and mediate on Sri Guru Granth Sahib and there is where you will find me.
Narrator: As the little girl grew older she began to forget her beautiful big light and was more interested in family friends and school. The world was an exciting place, there was lots of good people and some not so good. The little girl found that in her journey of life and goodness always shone through, who was this goodness, love and compassion? She tried hard to remember and was slowly remembering who this was.,
Have you ever felt the big beautiful light close to you with love?
Little spark: whenever, there is love and compassion, I know you are there, big beautiful light, and whenever you are there, I know I am content.
Narrator: Years passed and the girl had little children of her own, she loved them for they had been close to the light, she loved to take them to the parks and have lots of fun together.
Little Spark: I can see now, that the big beautiful light has created a big universe and in that wonderful universe he has created lots of little sparks everywhere, in the trees, grass and rocks, so I never feel lonely again. But sometimes I feel so lonely and sad and I just want to be with you again, what can I do?
Big beautiful light: I have not forgotten you, sweet little spark, everytime you want to feel my presence mediate on the Nam, mediate in the early hours of the morning and then you will find me.
Narrator: So the girl mediated in the early hours of the morning and found her light once again. The girl now lives closely with her big beautiful light everywhere she goes.

We can do this for children on the subject of death if we wanted to, explain to them what is means to die in Sikhi.


1947-2014 (Archived)
Well with your permission, I may work on the formatting and post this again, separately, in its own thread for the forum. Probably under Spiritual Articles. What was the title jio?
You are welcome, for what use it is writing if it is not read:) and used to help others.

The title is 'The big beautiful light and me'

Gurmit Kaur