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  • Arlen Gaines and Meredith Polsky

A Curious Thought: Challenges of Concrete Language

As we have worked on I Have a Question about Death, we’ve been reflecting on grief and loss through a more inclusive lens. Just recently, we were re-reading the bestselling book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon, and were struck by the following excerpt of a passage by the main character, Christopher, a 15 year old boy with presumed Autism Spectrum Disorder (though not explicitly stated in the book):

Mrs. Forbes at school said that when Mother died she had gone to heaven. That was because Mrs. Forbes is very old and she believes in heaven….But when Mother died she didn’t go to heaven because heaven doesn’t exist...dead people who have to be fired into space on rockets to get there, and they aren’t or people would notice. (p. 42)

These poignant words convey this difficulty of abstract concepts for many children, including those with special needs, who may process information best in a concrete manner. We're sure many adults can also relate to Christopher’s struggle with trying to make sense of the more abstract concepts of death when there is no easy, concrete answer.

We encourage use of concrete language when possible in supporting all children, including those with special needs, around death and dying. It may be easier to do so around certain aspects of the experience, such as talking about how the person “died” (and not using potentially confusing phrases like “passed on” or “in a better place”). However, the use of concrete language can be much more challenging when the concept is related to a belief system or a religious or spiritual aspect of the experience, such as heaven. We have found it to be helpful to acknowledge to the child how hard it is not to have concrete answers to some of the more abstract parts of this experience and to follow their cues.

How have you supported a child around the more abstract concepts of death and dying or other complicated matters? We’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback.

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