When Jennifer T.'s grandfather died unexpectedly, the 4-year-old bombarded her grief-stricken parents with questions: "What did they put Poppa into to bury him? Is he lying down or standing up in the ground? What's he wearing?" Jennifer's mother had expected questions, but she was surprised by the child's need for literal explanations.
"I was shocked. I wasn't thinking along those lines. I was thinking totally emotional, spiritual, and she's getting into coffins and dirt," Jennifer's mother says. It's not that Jennifer wasn't going to miss Poppa. It's just that children deal with everything - even death - in concrete and simple terms.
Here are some tips for helping kids cope with death - and at the same time teaching them to cherish life.
Get a Handle on Your Own Feelings
Most parents wait until confronted with death to start thinking about how to help their children with the concept. That may not be the best time, especially if the parents are also dealing with a loss.
Better to take a few moments now and reflect on your beliefs about death and your own experiences with it. "Then you can explain to your kids what you felt when your pet cat Fluffy died or when your grandpa died. That will give them the feeling that death and loss are universal, which of course they are," says M. Nan Jobson, LCSW, a social worker in Jacksonville, Florida.
Teach Your Child About the Circle of Life
There are endless opportunities to talk about death as a part of life, but most parents ignore these chances, trying to protect children from unpleasantness. Experts say seize these opportunities instead. The dying blooms on the rose bush in the garden can teach a lesson about life and death, as can the changing seasons or the death of a family pet. Visit elderly relatives or friends and show children that aging, although not always pleasant, is natural. If children are given the message that dying is OK to talk about, they will feel free to ask questions and will cope better when confronted with the death of a loved one. Colleen Mayo Friedman, MSW, LCSW, a family bereavement specialist, says, "Kids face death naturally if the adults around them allow it."
Include Your Child in Your Own Grief
Someone close - a grandparent, a close friend, maybe even your spouse - has died. The parental instinct is to shield children from the pain you are feeling. Don't, or your child will be forced to deal with it later. Twenty-nine-year-old Jodie R. lost her father when she was 5. "No one in my family talked to me about his death. They just said, 'He went away,' and, of course, I wanted to know, 'When's he coming back?' I'm still asking that question today, and it continues to affect my life." Jodie wishes her family had let her in on the grieving. "I know they were trying to protect me. It didn't work in the long run," she says.
It's not easy to let your child see you grieve, but hiding it from him or shuttling him off to Aunt Susie's will not only make him feel cut off from you but will send the message that it's not OK to cry or feel sad when someone dies. That is exactly the opposite of what your child needs to know. "What you want to do is give the child hope that the pain passes," says Jobson. "Your job is to let them know pain is part of living and that it does go away."
Children's questions about death are often hard to answer. The best you can do is be direct and honest at all times, and only give as much information as your child asks for. If, like Jennifer, it's coffins and dirt he wants to know about, talk about that. If he wants to know if he is going to die, your answer can be a totally honest, yet subtle, "That will be a long, long time from now."
One of the biggest concerns children have is their own security. They want to know if Mommy and Daddy will always be there. Let your child know Mommy and Daddy will be around a long time too, but if anything did happen, he would always be cared for.
Avoid cliches such as "Grandma's gone away" or "Grandpa went to sleep." These will raise more questions and cause more fear than a simple "Grandpa has died." And don't forget, if your child stumps you, you can always say, "I really don't know the answer to that."
Religion teaches about the meaning of life and death, provides explanations, and offers comfort. If you are not religious, you can still teach your children there is a higher meaning of life. We can carry on the good works of a loved one who died. We can dedicate some good works of our own to their memory. Parents can teach children that there is a reason for everything, even death. Seeing themselves as a small but important part of a larger mosaic can help children remain hopeful. "Spirituality helps in the sense that this is the way things are supposed to be, and it gives us hope that it's not over when it's over," says Rabbi Gary Perras.
Keep the Memories Alive
Rather than ban talk about the loved one who died, or avoid mentioning fun times together, go out of your way to keep the memories alive. Make a special photo album of the child with Grandpa, and look through it often; go out to eat at Grandma's favorite restaurant, and try to figure out what she would have ordered. Jennifer T. may have been only 4 when her "Poppa" died, but now at age 8, she thinks of him whenever she enjoys his favorite candy. "He liked butterscotch, and so do I," she says with a smile.
"As long as we talk about that person, laugh or even cry about that person, that person lives on for us. Instead of just telling kids that, we should show them by doing it," Jobson adds.
The death of a family pet is often the first experience a child has with dying. Make it a valuable and positive lesson. Say goodbye to the pet, if at all possible. Go through the rituals of death with your child. Bury the pet. Say prayers for it, if appropriate for your family. Discuss death and your particular beliefs about it. Grieve together. Make an album of favorite photos of the animal. Talk about the pet often and with love. These small steps will give your child a strong foundation that will help him when faced with the loss of a person he loves.
Should children be taken to funerals? In general, experts say yes. It is far better, even for an infant, to be with his family during a time of grief, than kept away. And if the deceased is a parent, then by all means a child should be included in all mourning rituals. Take time to prepare a child for what will happen at the funeral. ("Aunt Jane is going to cry a lot, and I just want to make sure you know that so it won't scare you.") If you think your own grief might prevent you from helping your child at this difficult time, appoint another relative or friend to stand in. If your child is reluctant to attend the funeral, don't force the issue. Discuss it, address the child's concerns, but don't push.
Updated and reviewed by: Kim Rutherford, MD
Date reviewed: May 2001
Originally reviewed by: Steven Bachrach, MD
Source: KidsHealth www.KidsHealth.com is a project of The Nemours Foundation which is dedicated to improving the health and spirit of children. Today, as part of its continuing mission, the Foundation supports the operation of a number of renowned children's health facilities throughout the nation, including the Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware, and the Nemours Children's Clinics throughout Florida. Visit The Nemours Foundation to find out more about them and its health facilities for children http://www.nemours.org/no/