Friday, February 12, 2010

An Answer to a Tough Question: How to Explain Death to Young Children

Nikki Aksamit is not a nurse, but she’s created something that many nurses may find useful: a book explaining death to young children.

If you work in hospice or palliative care, or are looking for explanations for why people and pets die, you may find some help in the book “Mommy, What Is Dead?”

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be asked about the birds ‘n’ the bees than about the what and whys of death. This is the situation in which Aksamit and her husband found themselves when their family experienced a series of losses – an interrupted pregnancy, a family friend and a long-time pet.

“In an 18-month period, I was faced with explaining all of these things to my 4-year-old son,” said the Chandler, Ariz., mother of three. “I couldn't find any books that were specific enough, or age-appropriate to give him the answers I wanted him to have. So I wrote my own.”

The first loss came in 2007. Aksamit was six weeks pregnant when her car was hit. Although she was told at the time that the fetus was unharmed, she lost the pregnancy at three months.

Her oldest son, Rook, then 4 years old, “was very straight forward -- precise in his questioning,” she said. “My husband and I were grieving and we were at a loss for words. Rook wanted to know ‘Why can’t bodies live forever?’ A week later, I picked up construction paper and markers and came up with answers.”

Aksamit’s self-published book is a soft-cover with illustrations explaining death and dying and is aimed at preschoolers and young children. It presents her concept of the difference between body and soul and broad reasons why people and animals die. The author incorporates what she says are “the two most common beliefs as to what happens to the soul after death -- heaven and reincarnation.”

“Although they are incredibly perceptive, I think we forget sometimes that kids don’t comprehend things the same way that we do, Aksamit explained. “They think in much simpler terms, especially preschool children. We should give them the answers they need, in a way they can understand.”
Shortly after Aksamit finished the book, the family dog passed away, then a close friend of the family died.

“That one hit us really hard and Rook was asking questions. I went to the book and it explained that sometimes people are sick for a long time and their bodies just can’t be fixed.”

Nurses can preview “Mommy, What is Dead?” at and decide whether the book is suitable to pass along to family members who have suffered a loss.
Aksamit realizes, she said, that not everyone will approach this topic the same, and some parents may choose to avoid it completely, but, “I never wanted to shelter my kids. My parents never sheltered us from anything and I want to do the same for my kids.”

However, it is appropriate to bring explanations of death to the proper level.

“If it could help my kids, maybe it can help other kids, too,” said Aksamit, who has several hearing-impaired people in her family, and has written another book -- “Mommy, What is Deaf?”

Do you have an explanation you’ve used to explain death to young children?

What for you are the toughest questions and/or the most delicate issues to explain to kids?

How honest with children do you think adults should be about terminal illness and death?

Tell us what you think.

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