When Newington resident Casey Noriega, 29, passed away Saturday after her car hit a tree in Kingstowne, she left behind a family, a group of friends and work colleagues, and some pint-sized toddlers who knew her simply as "Miss Casey."
As an instructor at Gymboree Play and Music of Alexandria, she worked closely on a regular basis with a group of area children.
How do you go about telling a young child that a teacher or instructor has died?
That topic is being debated now on DC Urban Moms and Dads, an online water cooler for area parents.
One parent was concerned about how the news about Noriega's death was broken to children, according to this post in a forum on the site:
"Given son's age, I would have preferred to tell him that Ms. X was sick, or had found another job. I really don't think that they should have made this announcement in front of children. I am sure it is a difficult time for the other teachers, but am thinking about saying something about it politely next week. Would this be out of line?"
Other parents on the forum disagreed. One of the posts included this response: "Death is a part of life, and even if kids don't totally 'get it,' we try to talk about it openly but appropriately. I personally think deciding kids don't get it and then avoiding the topic is a cop-out that they will see through...how many times has your toddler said or done something that you totally thought they didn't understand?"
In the book "A Good Friend for Bad Times: Helping Others Through Grief," by Deborah E. Bowen, MSW and Susan L. Strickler, the authors offer these tips on how to support children through grief:
What to Say and Do
- Keep routines as normal as possible.
- Say the deceased person’s name.
- Talk about the person who died. Keep memories alive by looking at photos, recognizing holidays and anniversaries, and commemorating the person.
- Provide the child with opportunities to express feelings. These feelings may include guilt, anger, sadness, confusion, or anxiety. Listen and give your support to the idea that it is acceptable to express emotions.
- Be patient and adjust your behaviors to fit the child’s needs.
- If a child becomes aggressive, try to channel his behaviors so that he understands what behaviors are acceptable, what behavioral limits are, and that he is cared for and safe.
- Share your feelings with the child. If you cry, explain your sadness to the child.
- Model appropriate grief behavior. Express your own emotions in a healthy way.
What Not to Say and Do
- Avoid euphemisms such as passed away, gone on a journey, and asleep. Children may take these terms literally. Be honest.
- Do not say, “God loved your mother so much that God sent her to heaven.” A child may feel that he, too, may die if he is good.
- Do not say, “It was God’s will.” Regardless of what you as an adult believe about spirituality and death, such a statement may negatively shape a child’s view of God and spirituality.
- Do not say, “It was best your mother died because she is no longer suffering.” Perhaps a child would rather have a suffering mother than none at all.
- Do not say, “You’re the man of the house now.” The child is still a child, and should not be saddled with adult responsibilities. Also, the child cannot take the place of someone who has died.
- Do not say, “You must be brave.” Children do not have to be brave. They should be allowed to express emotions, and to know that such expression is acceptable. Do not say, “You’re doing so well” (if the child is not expressing emotion). Saying this may tell a child expression of emotions is not acceptable.
- Do not say, “You should be better by now.” There is no timetable for grief.
- If a child’s behavior becomes regressive, do not criticize the child. Regressive behaviors such as bed-wetting, and thumb-sucking are common after death.
Friends and family are recalling Noriega on a memorial site.