I grew up in a home that didn’t talk about death. I can remember attending funerals and wondering where the person was if their body was in a casket. Now, as a parent I feel it’s my responsibility to teach my children not only about the circle of life, but how to cherish the memories of those who are no longer with us. Death, while a sad subject, is something children do need to be informed about. It’s part of life, and they will encounter it at some point or another.
Young children may begin asking questions about death when they encounter an animal on the side of the road or if it is part of a storyline in a fairy tale. Events like this can be helpful in laying groundwork for talking about human death. Death is a strange and mysterious part of life for all of us, but for children in particular, it can seem overwhelming. Because the passing of a grandparent or even a beloved pet is forever, it takes time and patience for a child to understand this. As a parent, it’s our job to be the security for our children as they deal with this concept.
When talking to your child about death, make sure you use concrete wording like “dead” and explain that the person’s body “stopped working.” Don’t use ambiguous phrasing like “gone to sleep” or “in a better place.” Not only is it difficult to understand, it can create fear in your child that when they go to sleep, they won’t wake. If you have religious or cultural beliefs regarding death, share them with your child in a manner they can understand, but again, be sure to avoid clichéd phrases such as “God needed him/her in heaven with Him” as they can also stir up fears of the unknown. Of course, it is imperative that you consider your children’s cognitive development and personality when you are talking to them.
Depending on the closeness between your children and the deceased, they may need to talk about death a lot. Recognize that they have questions that are part of their cognitive development and try to be patient. If you decide to take your children along to calling hours or a funeral, make sure you talk to them prior to the event about what to expect. Explain to them that the deceased is not really there, but we are here to say goodbye to the person’s body and remember the good times. One of the most common reactions to death in preschoolers is to talk about it over and over, sometimes at the most inopportune times. My own mother died when my youngest brother was 9 years old. Throughout the course of the calling hours, he repeatedly approached visitors and informed them that our mother was dead and if they wanted to look at her, she was in her casket. Some of the visitors were very uncomfortable, but for my brother, he needed this announcement of fact to help him grasp the finality of death. Be aware that children often will regress in their behaviors (bedwetting or baby talk) or become clingy. Each of these events needs to handled with sensitivity and for as long as the child needs to use it to cope.
Be a Good Model
Modeling healthy grief is essential for children to see. It’s ok for them to see you cry and say you are sad. Creating a memory book of a deceased pet or grandparent is a wonderful way to deal with grief and helps to ensure that your child sees that even though someone is no longer with us, he or she is still loved. In my home, I have a scrapbook made of my mother looking happy and healthy. Since my children never got to meet her, I am glad that they will get to know her good memories. Every year we celebrate her birthday. Instead of using that day to grieve her loss, I make lasagna and a marble cake with cream cheese frosting. I celebrate the fact that she was my mother and without her, I wouldn’t be here with my own children.
The methods you choose to help guide your child through a death is up to you. You wouldn’t be reading this if you weren’t already aware that you need to be sensitive and gentle when your little ones are dealing with change. Talking to your children and reading age-appropriate books can help guide them to a better understanding. Writing a letter to the deceased or painting a picture can make a world of difference in the healing of their tender hearts. But in the end, the most important way to help our children recover from the loss of a relationship to death is to spend the time they need loving and affirming them with sensitivity.