When it comes to death, children are the forgotten people. When it comes to death, we are all children. -- Ralph Waldo Emerson
"If this can happen to people with so many safety checks," pondered one fifth-grader at the Hebrew Academy in Silver Spring about the Challenger tragedy, "then what can happen to one little kid? I saw a picture of the teacher eating breakfast and the next minute she was dead.'"
"It showed children the fallibility of the space dream, and the fallibility of life," says Hebrew Academy social worker Judy Frank.
Last week's explosion of the Challenger space shuttle focused attention on what is more often hidden, denied and couched in euphemisms for children. Though, because of its drama, this tragedy was opened to the world, other traumas in the lives of children are often ignored or inadequately dealt with. Instead, say grief counselors, they should be used to strengthen children.
"Most adults -- parents included -- are reluctant to talk with young children about such an emotional event as death for fear they will say 'the wrong thing' and create unnecessary anguish for the children," says Sandra Fox, director of the Boston-based "Good Grief" pilot program, which helps "schools and community groups become a base of support for children when a friend dies."
"There is so much need for adults to see kids happy," says social worker Frank, who in partnership with Robert Lazun of the Park Centre Counseling Center in Potomac runs "Living Through Loss," a program based on the "Good Grief" model.
"Parents and teachers will say, 'Let's go out for ice cream,' 'I'll buy you a new dress,' or 'Let's paint the classroom.' This overcompensation is all saying, 'Let's not have them deal with it because I can't deal with it.' "
"People who work with kids sometimes feel very helpless," says Lazun, a social worker and principal of Hebrew Academy. "Especially if they haven't come to their own conclusions about death."
The idea behind "Living Through Loss" is that dealing effectively with even the smallest tragedy at an early age can be a fundamental contribution to strengthening children for the inevitable future tragedies of life.
"Being able to cope with something negative and come out whole makes a person stronger," says Lazun. "If it happens again, the student says, 'I'll be able to cope.' "
Through both programs, parents and teachers learn that children do think spontaneously and readily about death. From the "bang, bang, you're dead" of preschoolers to the knowledge by age 9 or 10 that death is inevitable and final, children's understanding of death progresses through a series of developmental phases.
Preschoolers may see death as a temporary relocation -- "What will Sarah eat up there?" Or they may interpret adult explanations literally. One little boy, having been told that only his grandmother's body would be put in a casket, refused to go the funeral because "I don't want to see Nana with her head cut off."
Said another, when given a religious explanation: "They put your outsides in the ground and your insides in the sky."
From age 6 to 11, says Fox, children have strange questions about death -- "Why do they cut you open?" or "When do the worms get you?" Death, they believe, is something that gets other people because they don't get away fast enough.
Not too unlike adults, children may use magical thinking to explain things they cannot otherwise understand. For example, one little boy rationalized a playmate's death like this: "Sally ate her cookies before she ate her sandwich."
Responses -- often angry, mischievous, boisterous and selfish -- that may seem strange and ill-mannered to adults are the child's attempt, says Fox, to "master something that is incomprehensible to them at their current level of cognitive development." One little girl's major concern when her uncle died: "Who will fix my jewelry?"
Even more confusing to adults is what Fox calls the "unsynchronized nature of the grief of individual family members. One is angry, another sad, another wishing to forget all the pain, and yet another relieved that suffering has ended."
Frank tells of one child who, to the disbelief of adults, showed no signs of grief when his grandfather died. When a counselor questioned him, the boy replied, "He lived in Arizona, we visited him once a year and he had really bad breath."
Adolescence is a particularly vulnerable time for loss, and is, ironicallly, when the greatest number of deaths in school-age children occurs.
"You just have to keep your eyes open. It sometimes triggers reactions from kids you don't expect," says Myra Herbert, coordinator of school social services for Fairfax County Schools.
Kids want an adult to say, "This is not going to happen to you. I will help you control this situation.
The goal of crisis intervention, says Fox, is to get children "unstuck -- to help them get through, over, under or around a temporary barrier to their normal and healthy forward movement."
Kids, says Herbert, "will get intensely emotional for a brief time -- life is so immediate for them. But rarely does it continue for a long time."
Is there a "correct" response to a child trying to cope with death?
"We get caught feeling we have to have answers," says Fox. "It's really simple to say, 'That's a tough question.' People need to learn to listen to the questions and ideas that children have."
Frank and Lazun also advocate a "preventive" informal approach to learning about loss -- "not one week in March for death education." Instead, they encourage teachers and parents to seize existing opportunities to help children learn to deal with the subject.
When Pumpernickel, the second-grade gerbil, died at the Hebrew Academy last year, the teacher wanted to go on with the daily routine and quietly remove the body. But Frank saw the opportunity to talk about death and insisted on giving him a funeral. She encouraged students to say good things about Pumpernickel, who was buried in the schoolyard with Fritos thrown on his grave.
"We institutionalize death," says Frank. "It's pushed away. We need to make children aware that all around is death. As we make it a natural part, then the mystique is not so awful."