Grief Education
Children & Grief
Coping with Grief

How the STAR Class Works


from The STAR Class
by Karen Nilsen

Kids get most of their knowledge and beliefs from their parents, teachers, and peers, as well as from TV shows and movies. Think about what is out there on the big screen- is it any wonder they and the general population are so misinformed and biased about death and funerals?

The days surrounding a death can be a confusing and disorienting time for young children. Altered daily routines and unfamiliar sights and sounds can be difficult for them to understand and cope with. Children notice even the most subtle changes in their routines and surroundings and before they can actually add, they can put two and two together and come up with three.

Children need simple, honest, straightforward explanations about death. We can teach our children in the same non-threatening, caring way that we explain other milestones in their lives. We must validate their feelings and encourage them to share their thoughts, fears and observations of the events taking place around them.

The STAR Class is an honest, sensitive, caring approach to helping kids understand the visitation and funeral process through stories, pictures, discussion, a craft activity, and a STAR message.

The STAR Class contains words and images that are not usually a part of everyday conversation for children or adults. Providing children with the opportunity to hear the words of the funeral process, to express feelings and concerns in a creative art activity, and to write a STAR message to their loved one who has died can give them a sense of power over this new experience and help allay fears about what the funeral is all about.

Ten or twenty years from now a child may not remember specific details of the funeral they attended, but they will remember that it was a meaningful, non-threatening experience and that they were actively involved in the final good-bye to their loved one who died.

I have been teaching the STAR Class in our funeral home for the past three years. It is offered to families with young children, at need, for traditional funerals as well as memorial services. Children have ranged in age from two to fourteen years and have attended classes for siblings, friends, parents, grandparents, and classmates. The STAR Class has the flexibility to be of value to children in a wide range of circumstances.

The class is introduced at the time arrangements are made. An informational letter is given to the parents or grandparents with a brief explanation of the class. The funeral director obtains the names, and ages of the children and their relationship to the deceased. The family is asked to provide a photo for the child to use in the craft activity.

It is held during the private family viewing time before the visitation or wake. This allows adult family members an opportunity to view for the first time without children present and to make final preparations of the visitation room. At the same time it prepares the children for what they may see, hear, and experience when they approach the casket for the first time.

A funeral director told me the story of a young boy, about six years old, who refused to enter the visitation room to view his grandfather’s body. He seemed inordinately upset and frightened. His parents didn’t understand his terror. After taking him aside and talking to him, the reason became clear. “I don’t want to see my grandpa without his head!” He had heard that his grandfather’s "body" was at the funeral home. He took this literally. The body would be present - he deduced that the head would not.

When explaining how the body of the deceased will appear in the casket, I am very specific. I try to cover all the bases. By previewing the room set-up, casket type, special objects present, and the clothing the deceased is wearing, I can prepare the children with the details they will see when we go together to view.

I have learned so much about how children conceptualize the mystery of death. I have discovered some of the preconceptions and misconceptions that young children share at various ages. We can read charts and graphs with information about how children perceive and grasp the concept of death, but we must be careful not to draw biased conclusions about children based solely on their age.

When someone tells me that a two-year-old is too young to understand what’s going on or to be involved in the funeral process I tell the story of Danielle. In a period of six weeks, two-and-a-half-year-old Danielle had experienced the death of her grandmother and then her grandfather. When she bravely announced that her grandparents had died, she quickly added, “But, my mommy didn’t die.” What was this child worried about? What was on her little mind? Is my mommy next?

Our first instinct is to reassure young children that everything will be okay and not to worry about a parent dying. But, this two-year-old has learned that special, loved people do die. We would lose our credibility if we were to make a promise like that. With small children, I believe it is important to deal with the here and now, i.e.: Today your mommy and daddy are alive and well and here to love you and care for you. There will always be someone to take care of you.

For more information on the STAR Program, visit Karen's Web site


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