How do you explain death to a person on the autism spectrum?

For the first few years of our son Hunter’s life, we tried to shield him from death as much as possible. We would have loved to do this forever, but that is not realistic.  Being too young when my step father died and his great grand mother passed, we missed out on the emotional part that is attached to losing a loved one. He noticed they were gone, of course, but did not have the developmental age to understand much about it.

Now at age 6 1/2, he is more aware of when people or pets suddenly vanish without explanation. He is very much into the why stage of his development, so he is more inquisitive about things.  There is no more skirting around the idea of death with him.

Our first real conversation about death came when our cat, Bootsy, was found dead in the neighbor’s yard. This is the cat that he had grown to love and explaining it was dead was a chore. The questions kept coming. “Is he going to come back? Can we take him to the doctor and get him better? When can I see  him again?” Each question was more and more painful for us and all the more painful for him to hear the explanation. The finality of death was just so hard to explain.

Recently, Hunter found a dead bird. He understood that it was dead and asked, “Mom, why is it dead?”. I tried to be as kid friendly with the explanation as possible. This did not work. So I explained to him that people/animals sometimes die because they are too old. I also, told him that sometimes people can not get well if they are sick and then they die. I went on to explain about a funeral for people and how we bury the body and become sad because we miss that person/animal. I also told him its ok to be sad and that we never forget those memories about the person/animal we lose.

After we had a burial for the bird, he promptly stated, “I want to call daddy at work”. He was proud to explain to his dad about what he did and how we buried the bird. I felt like we had helped him understand in a concrete way.

We recently had my mother’s pet pass away. He was very upset about the passing of the cat. It didn’t help that he was very sick at the time. So for whatever reason, he has become frightened. He is sick a lot and we are constantly going to get blood and see specialists. So now he has associated his frequent illness with the idea he is going to die.

One night not long ago, he asked my husband and I if he was going to get better or die. This is something that I never wanted to hear and we were very sad to hear him say.

He asked that very question for a week, as soon as he wakes up and before he went to bed. It was obvious that he was perservating on the idea of death. He also asked my husband and mom, “If mommy dies will we get another one?”. We knew that this was a big stress for him, so we went on a book search to help put his mind at ease.

There are some good ones out there but I wanted something kid friendly.  So we got When A Pet Dies, by Fred Rodgers, Water Bugs & Dragonflies Explaining Death to Young Children and I Miss You: A First Look at Death, by Pat Thomas. I am anxious about reading them to him but also hopeful that it will help ease his pain and anxiety about the experience of losing a loved one.

Any suggested reading or ideas of helping a child on the spectrum would be wonderful. This is a hard topic for any children and I am finding it particularly difficult, since it is hitting home so much for my little man. He has shown me that although he can’t always express his feelings of loss, he definitely feels the absence and misses those that have parted from his life.

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