When A Child’s Friend Dies

Antonia, who is five years old, had a friend Sam who died last month. Sam, who was six, died following a freak accident at a park. Antonia told me that she wants “to help other children who had a friend who died.”

Children in North America usually don’t have much experience with the death of other children. In other countries, where there are wars or natural disasters, such as earthquakes or floods, death can be a common occurrence. Antonia has some very good ideas for children and for parents who might be uncertain about how to help a young child make sense of and deal with the death of a child.

Antonia talks about Sam, “He taught me how to eat string cheese.”

I ask, “Have you eaten string cheese since Sam’s death?”

“I have,” she says. “I remembered Sam when I did, and it was a good feeling. I want to remember him because he was nice. It makes me happy to think about him.”

I ask her if there are other ways she has of remembering Sam. There are many. Antonia likes visiting Sam’s family because there are lots of pictures of Sam on display. His room is “Still there and so are his toys.” Antonia says she thinks it would be good if she can remember Sam always and if adults help her remember by talking about him.

I want to know whether or not she went to Sam’s wake. Many adults worry that young children will be frightened at a wake especially if there is an open casket. Antonia’s parents gave her a choice to attend the wake and to see Sam. So Antonia went.

She is happy she did. “I saw Sam in the box. His body and his face looked different. He was wearing a sweater I had never seen before. It was a good thing I saw him in the box because it was my last chance to see him. I said, ‘Good-bye’ to him in my head, not out loud. But I said it to him.”

Even though Antonia said her farewells, she continues to talk to Sam through her prayers. “I say prayers to Sam during the day. I tell him, ‘I still know you even though you’re in Heaven.'”

At the end of our conversation, I ask Antonia if she thinks there are ways children can be helpful to the parents of a child who has died. She ponders this. “Sometimes I hug Sam’s parents to make them feel better.”

I bet that does help Sam’s parents a lot.

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