Defining Death for Children

Poppa and the CousinsIt has been a while since I wrote because we lost my husband’s dad just a short while ago.  

Grief is a tough concept for families. It is such a highly individual experience for all of us.

The only management comparison I can think of in this instance is setting up policies for delivering the bad news.

Good companies do it and bad companies don’t, and they pay the price for that oversight in many and sundry ways. Thinking ahead can save you and your children some heartache when times are difficult and emotional and that is what plans and policies are designed to do in corporate management. Make that strategy work for you on the home front if you can.

My childhood experience with death was limited. I was 14 when I left home to pursue my singing career away from my family. Shortly before, my grandmother who was only 56 at the time, suffered a massive stroke, while driving to the airport. She was a very powerful woman after a lifetime of logging and picking fruit and so she manhandled the car to the side of the road with one hand, while the other side of her body simply shut down. She brought the car to safety before she collapsed, but by the time the ambulance got there, it was far too late to bring her back and she passed away the next morning. She had been a lifelong smoker of unfiltered Camel cigarettes and had not taken care of her health, which may have contributed to her early passing.

That was the first time someone close to me died, and since we were a small and fractured family, I didn’t attend another funeral until I was an adult and was asked to sing with my show choir for a man I didn’t even know. He knew he was dying and had heard us perform “Free at Last” from “Big River” and wanted that sung at his memorial.

I discovered that funerals were torturous experiences for me. Even if I did not know the person well, I sob deeply and uncontrollably and it is very painful. I now make it a point to avoid them and realize that I am not a “casual funeral-goer.” I will, of course, go if it is for a family member or close friend, but not for an acquaintance. It is too painful, both at the time and later, as I endure the head-splitting migraine that follows.

This is how I feel about funerals.

So, how do we deal proactively with the subject of death in our children’s lives?

Death comes up fairly quickly in childhood, particularly through stories they read or see in movies. Bambi’s mother gets shot.  Other stories (in fact, far too many in my humble opinion) lack mothers who have previously died, etc. Pets die in stories and in real life.

What do you tell your children to prepare them? What will not make them fearful, but will allow them to grieve in a healthy way, particularly if it is a beloved pet or relative?

We started with pets, of course.

As our little gerbils aged, we broached the subject of their eventual demise. We explained that Xena and Gabrielle had short life spans normally in the wild, but that when they died, they would have lived long and happy lives because our daughters had loved and cared for them. However, they would eventually end the time that God had allotted them on Earth and it would be time for them to go to wherever gerbils go to heaven. All living creatures have a life span. We live for a while and then we die and go on to heaven.

As they grew older this conversation expanded to include people they loved and they would ask, “What about you and Daddy and Mema and Poppa and Nana?” and the list would go on and on. We answered their questions honestly, that “Yes, everything dies: Even pill bugs.”

We buried beloved pets with a small ceremony and said a prayer while a few tears were shed, but soon the girls had processed their grief and were ready to go and look at new baby gerbils. This is harder with dogs and cats and longer-lived animals, and certainly much more difficult with loved relatives.

Allow children to participate in as much of the closure rituals as possible, depending on their age and maturity level, and keep talking with them about their feelings as much as they will allow. Teenagers are a special challenge here, since they may want to talk more to their peers about their feelings of grief than to you, but try not to take that personally.

It is more important that they are talking to someone. You can always talk to them about your feelings, as long as you don’t make it too melodramatic. Try to focus on the good memories you have of the person who is gone. Those are healing conversations and can do many positive things.

How old should a child be before they come to a real funeral?

I would not take a child under ten to a funeral unless they were extremely mature or insisted on coming. It can be very scary and incomprehensible to the very young and becomes more of a trauma than a closure. From the teen years and beyond, they can more adequately handle both the emotional aspects and the behavior that is expected of them. It might be best to limit them to the reception afterwards or a celebration of life memorial later, which may be a more appropriate place to say goodbye.

I have many friends who have told me of the trauma they experienced at seeing a loved one in an open casket as a young child or worse, having to kiss them goodbye.

Our daughters were both in college when their grandfather passed and we asked them to wait and attend a celebration of life memorial we will have at the end of the month. There, they will celebrate Dad’s life with hundreds of people whose lives he touched, get a sense of the legacy he left, and share closure with the whole extended family. At least that is our hope.

Dad’s last wish was that his passing be celebrated and not mourned because he knew where he was going. He spent his last few days in hospice contacting family and friends, saying goodbye and making sure they knew he loved them and then he simply went to sleep and I know with certainty, continued on to heaven where we will see him again when our time comes.

In closing, it is a good idea to talk about your feelings about death in the family with your spouse. What would you want to share with your children and what rituals you would want to observe? Once you begin them, they are yours. Children thrive on rituals and will keep them in their hearts and often share them with their children, so what would be meaningful in the construct of your particular faith?

Be honest, transparent, and explain as much as they can understand in a straightforward way during a time when you are not emotional. When things happen you will be, and that can be scary to children, particularly small ones. They will be better equipped to handle it if they know that you are sad because you are missing someone, and not because you are sick or hurt or could die.

Believe me, that is often the first conclusion they jump to, so head it off at the pass.

You will notice I am not addressing how to explain death to a child who may be dying. 

That is because other than being honest and listening to the professionals you will be consulting, I have no advice for you here. It is too painful for me to even contemplate and my heart and prayers go out to any parent who ever deals with this profound pain that seems to totally circumvent the natural circle of life. I wish these parents help, support, and prayer beyond measure.

God Bless.

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