When I told my grandchildren that Papa, their grandpa, was going to die, four-year-old Tabitha asked solemnly, “Then who will be your Dad?” At her age, our granddaughter expressed innocent curiosity based on her life experience. To her, my husband was my Dad and losing a Dad was unimaginable. At the same instant, my grandson Trey, age nine, said, “That’s really sad,” and burst into tears. He knew that death meant the permanent loss of someone he loved. Children process death and grief according to their stage of development, and typically they will reprocess this event and its meaning as they mature.
Children are exposed to death in many forms: by watching cartoons, movies, and TV news reports, by playing video games, by reading storybooks, through pretend play and pets, and by overhearing adult conversations. Aside from the death of pets, most of these views of death are not realistic or personal. Cartoon or video characters “die” and come back to life in the next episode or game. News reports focus on shocking extremes and sensational situations, and adult conversations about death are usually secretive to protect children.
In our effort to insulate children from death, we underestimate their ability to accept reality. As with any lesson in life, children need simplicity, honesty, and repetition. If death is approaching, explain what will be happening in small steps, using unambiguous words such as dying and death. We should never assume that explaining it once is enough or assume that children will ask the questions they really want to know. Some children are extremely sensitive and will decline to ask for fear of upsetting adults. They may also act as if they already know everything that is happening to avoid appearing stupid or foolish. Before the burial of her grandfather, Tabitha asked if they could get Papa’s head as well as his feet into the casket. To her, even in his sickliest form, Papa was gigantic. An older child might have similar questions, but be too embarrassed to ask. The information children have is often grossly distorted and even frightening. During a period of tragedy and grief, it’s important to make the time to validate children’s feelings and help them express their fears.
Children need concrete activities and honest dialogue to help them through their grief. Following are some suggestions that might inspire more of your own.
1. Help your child make a little photo album for a dying relative. Find photos of activities they did together or that have special meaning for both of them. Your child can dictate a story to you or draw a picture to go with each photo. If a loved one has already died, the album might be a keepsake for your child.
2. If you have a video of the dying or dead relative, watch it with your child when he shows interest or talks about his relative. At times, he might want to watch it alone.
3. Include children in the dying process whenever it is appropriate. For example, if you are choosing a burial plot, bring your child to the cemetery to look at plots. Children only fear what we teach them to fear. Explain what a cemetery is, what will happen there, and that the deceased person will be in a lovely, peaceful place. They can even help choose a gravestone.
4. Allow your child to take part in discussions about the deceased person. For example, before my husband’s burial, our Rabbi met with our family to help us talk about my husband. The children heard wonderful stories about their grandfather, what he had achieved, and the love we all had for him.
5. Depending on your custom, give your children some role to play in the funeral. In our tradition, mourners each place three shovels of dirt on the lowered casket. At the graveside, our grandchildren solemnly and proudly contributed their three shovels of dirt. A few days later, we returned with flowers and cards, and saw that the grave was covered with grass.
6. Give your child an item that belonged to the deceased person, such as a special key chain, a piece of jewelry, or some other object that the child can actually hold when he thinks about the loved one.
Your child may not mention the death of a loved one because she may wish to spare your feelings, but it’s important to demonstrate that it’s normal and desirable to talk about someone who has died. Encourage your child to express honest feelings, even if she has feelings of anger that the person is gone. Respect your child as a mourner with a full range of emotions. A child’s first experience with the death of a loved one will provide a foundation on which to build her own view of life and death. Make that first encounter with death one that is filled with both compassion and joy.
Eleanor Reynolds is the editor of The Best of the Problem-Solver: Articles for Parents and Teachers. For more information, call 800-989-7643 or visit her website at www.problemsolver.org. Reynolds is also the author of Guiding Young Children: A Problem-Solving Approach.