We had a death in our family this past Christmas. After notifying my relatives, I received an e-mail from a cousin. She suggested that I write an article discussing how to talk with children about the death of a loved one. She was very young when her father died. Her aunt spoke to her about what would happen during the following days. My cousin expressed how comforting that felt "because that was still in the era where people didn't think a lot about what those days are like for children. Most of my memories are of being isolated in a swirl of activity."
We have not moved far from that era. As a culture we are not comfortable with death or with talking about it. Many are troubled by the strength of the feelings aroused when someone dies. They are less comfortable if they feel nothing. Most of us are unfamiliar with the ways grief manifests. Parents and close relatives aren't prepared to talk to children about death.
Children are sensitive to the emotionally intense atmosphere when someone dies. If adults do not express what they are feeling, children will draw their own conclusions about what is happening, often incorrectly. If they had unkind thoughts or had expressed unkind words to the deceased prior to the death they may feel responsible. In the busyness during the following hours and days, they may not be given the attention needed to understand their own confusion and grief. They may misinterpret this as parents and relatives being angry with them.
Children learn to cope with death by watching their parents and other significant adults. What they see is what they carry into adulthood and pass on to their offspring. When people begin to understand death as a part of life and live with it as such, it will cease to be a taboo topic. Parents today can learn the skills of talking more comfortably about death. This paves the way for greater acceptance and understanding when it occurs.
Two aspects of talking with children are important. First is giving the news of the death itself. Second is letting them know the events that will happen during the following days and providing assurance that they will be cared for.
When telling children that a parent, grandparent, or other loved one has died, use compassionate, clear, honest communication. The words you choose will depend on the age of the child and the circumstances surrounding the death. Share your own feelings. Shedding tears is necessary and appropriate. However, if you are very upset, ask another trusted person to deliver the news. Extreme emotion frightens children. They feel helpless and don't know what to do.
Death is not easily understood by anyone. When talking with children, carefully chosen words decrease the chance for misunderstanding and fear. For example, saying that the loved one went to sleep and will not wake up may create anxiety about going to bed at night. It would be better to say, "It looks like Grandma is asleep, but death is different from that. When you are asleep, you are breathing, and your heart is beating. All of the parts of your body are working. When a person dies, they do not breathe anymore. Their heart does not beat. The parts of their body no longer work."
Allow time for the expression of feelings. Children will expect you to feel sad. You may also be angry and short of patience. You may want to spend some time alone. Tell them that when a loved one dies people have lots of different feelings. Ask how they are feeling. Acknowledge whatever they express. Some children will say they feel lonely or scared. If a loved one has been ill, they may say it is good because they no longer have pain. Others might say they are mad at the person for leaving. Most will express that they will miss the person. All of these feelings are natural.
Share memories. Memories often include humorous events. Laughter is good. Children see that life goes on even after a sad event. Recalling memories begins the healing process.
Some children have a difficult time talking. They might draw pictures for you or for the one who has passed. They can write a letter or make up songs, stories, or poems about the person.
Children have lots of questions about death. Why did it happen? Where did the person go? Do they look the same? Will I ever see them again? How will we get money? Who will take care of us? Some of your answers will hold practical information. Others depend on your religious or spiritual beliefs. If you are not associated with a spiritual community, do your best to answer those questions with what you hold as personal beliefs. You might start such a conversation with the words, "No one know for sure what happens when a person dies, but in our faith we believe..." or "We don't know for sure what happens when a person dies, but I like to think..."
Some families say prayers for each other and for the deceased. Some meditate together or create an altar with pictures, flowers, and special belongings of the person. Creating a ritual is healing and comes easily to children. Family rituals help them feel a part of what is happening.
The importance of providing time and support for children during the period after a death should not be ignored. However, many details need attention. If there is a funeral or burial ceremony, arrangements need to be made. Both friends and strangers will come to the house. It is during this time that the needs of the children can get overlooked.
My cousin described that time as being "isolated in a swirl of activity." In the book Facing Death and Finding Hope by Christine Longaker, she tells of a young boy who saw his brother struck and killed by a car. He drew a jagged line representing the events of the day. At one point the line crossed over itself. His therapist asked him if that was when the accident occurred. He said no. It showed the hardest part of the day; the part where his parents left him at a neighbor's house and he didn't know what was happening.
When children don't know what's happening, they are afraid. By telling them what to expect and who will be with them relieves their anxiety. There will be people coming to the home to console the family. Friends will bring food. Tell them what will happen the day of the burial or memorial service. This includes who they will ride with, stand or sit by, and who will watch after them at the bereavement meal. If there is not a burial or service, creating a family ritual gives closure. It is a way for adults and children alike to say good-bye to the deceased.
Many families have guests to their home after a funeral. Often churches have a meal or time of gathering. These occasions include tears, laughter, and conversation. At these events people they do not know may want to hug them and offer words of condolence. Some of the words they might hear: "I'm sorry for your loss." "I know you'll miss your (whomever)." "I was shocked to hear of your (whomever's) death." "We'll really miss your (whomever)." "Your (whomever) was a great person."
When people see the family following a death, they are often uncomfortable. They don't know what to say. They may act more solemn than usual. They may hug too tightly or too long. It is okay for children to ask not to be hugged or to say that the hug has lasted long enough.
Sometimes families must travel to where the loved one has died. Let the children know all that will entail. If they are not going, prepare them for where they will stay during your absence. Tell them what you expect to be doing and when you will call.
In the days following the ceremonies life begins to return to normal. While on the outside things look much like they did before, the change affects everyone in the family. Often there is an emptiness or feeling of not being connected to what is happening. Explain to your children that this is normal. Assist them in understanding that for awhile they may cry or get angry more easily and that you may, too. Do not pretend that everything is the same as before. It is not, and children know this. In time, however, healing occurs, and new patterns emerge.
Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood shared his wisdom with children for years. He said it well in his book Tell Me Mister Rogers About Learning to Read, Sleeping Away from Home, Going to the Dentist, Thunder and Lightning, When Pets Die, Nobody Feels Perfect. (A Child Guidance Book). "Being alive and being dead are two things that are really hard to understand. They're hard for everybody: children and grown-ups."
Developing your own understanding of life and death requires time and commitment. Attempts at explaining them to children can be nothing more than your best efforts. Be compassionate with yourself when talking about the death of a loved one. When you are hurting and feeling vulnerable, it is difficult to care for the needs of others. Ask for help from trusted relatives and friends. You are not alone in your time of grief.