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How Children Cope When A Loved One Dies

Updated on May 21, 2012
At the airport in Jacksonville, FL.  The first time my father was in the company of my three boys after undergoing a life-saving surgery.
At the airport in Jacksonville, FL. The first time my father was in the company of my three boys after undergoing a life-saving surgery. | Source

My inspiration to share what I know about helping children understand and cope when a loved one dies came to me from my three-year-old son who quite literally left me speechless during a recent, very unexpected, moment. I was putting the sheets on our guest bed when he walked in and asked (and I quote): "Who is going to sleep in this bed next?" My inlaws had just left and I was getting the bed ready for my mother who was arriving in two days. I answered, "Oma will be here the day after tomorrow." To what he promptly replied, "What about Opa? Did he get killed or something?"

Silence.

Then tears welled up in my eyes. I explained in soft, gentle words that: "Yes, Opa died and he will not come to sleep in this bed." But that instead an angel had come to get him and had brought him to heaven. And that he was resting in a very comfortable, warm place. And yes, that we miss him terribly but that we will all be okay. For sure. And that we will always remember him dearly and keep him close to our hearts.

I rambled on until I was interrupted, thankfully. I had never before been left so tongue twisted by a three-year-old. "But I thought we brought Opa to the hospital to get better," he says, confused. Yes, he was right about the fact that we were all together last on that awful Friday morning at Stanford Medical Center, trying desperately to save him. I nodded in agreement, but added: "Opa was very, very, very sick. Sicker than any one of us can ever imagine. It was time for him to go. I'm sorry."

After a big, long hug and an "I love you," we parted ways. I finished making the bed and he happily ran off to greet my husband, who luckily came home at that very moment and gave me space to collect my thoughts. And wipe away my tears.

Children Grieve the Loss of a Loved One, Too

Today, exactly four months ago, we said goodbye to my father who passed away after a long and complicated health battle. It is only after gaining a bit of distance from the actual day that I am able to reflect on how this loss has affected not just me, but all of us all, very deeply. This is especially true as I consider my three boys, ages 8, 6 and 3.

Children, by their own nature, understand and cope with the loss of a loved one in a manner largely appropriate for their individual temperament and age. Sometimes their actions and reactions may seem very unsophisticated on the surface, but at second glance the message is clear. They are grieving and suffering as much as adults do. And so the wisdom lies in recognizing cues about how much more affected they may be than we might have originally expected.

Coping with Death as an Eight-Year-Old

There was never a doubt in my mind that at the very moment I was re-united with my eight-year-old after my father passed away, that I would bring him close to me and share the difficult news. And as I recall, I just kind of said it. Plain and simple. "I am sorry but I have to tell you that Opa died today." I feel like I had it written all over my forehead, anyways.

I could be that straightforward because I knew that he understood what it means to die. He was old enough to grasp the idea that a life had come to an end, and that he would never see my father again. I also knew that he was well aware of the many long years leading up to my father's death, when fear and worry about his declining health often came in the way of going about our days as carefree as we would have liked to.

Once the news was out, there was a clear reaction. There were tears. There was also curling up and pounding fists on the floor. Then there were words like 'I will miss Opa' and 'I am so sad'. And then there was a lot of physical closeness to me as his mother, and me as the daughter who had lost a father. I believe he was looking for safety as he felt scared about the thought that someone we loved had died. And he wished to console me because he could clearly tell that I was hurting, too. We hugged a lot, he sat on my lap and that very first night, we slept in the same room. I think we both needed it. We both wanted to make sure that the other was okay.

Since those first difficult days, we have come a long way. He has been surprisingly strong, at least to the outside world. And while he may not ask about his Opa often, he does remember him at the most appropriate times. He is definitely grieving, but he grieves very quietly. I think partly because the loss was so paralizing to him, and partly because he feels it more deeply than he can describe in his own words.

And he has also been incredibly perceptive. Sometimes it seems he can sense that I am having a hard day before I have even admitted it to myself. He is understanding when I am overwhelmed and eager to hug when I am struggling. He clearly wants his Mom to be well. Because he feels that if she is well, than he can be well, too.

Coping with Death as a Six-Year-Old

Looking back, I have to admit that upon sharing the news of my father's passing, my six-year-old was more an add-on than the focus of my conversation. Yes, I included him in our little huddle on the floor and he clearly understood the message, but my eyes zeroed in on his older brother. Somehow I must have thought that he would not be as emotionally connected, and would bounce back more easily, with only minimal effort.

He showed no physical reaction to the news, other than lowering his head as a sign of compassion. He hugged me, after his brothers set the example. And, his first words back to me were something along the following lines. "It's okay, Mama. At least we still have Oma, Grandma Fran and Grandpa Pete." I was horrified to hear these words, especially in the company of my mother who stood nearby and just lost her husband. Thankfully, I guess, because she immediately saw through him and translated for me: I am sorry Opa died, but at least we still have eachother. It was almost like he had morphed into being my parent, seeing the mess I was in front of his eyes. Yet, he could already see into the future and assure me of what I would be professing months later - no matter what, everything will be okay. How insightful.

That translation set the tone for, and opened my eyes to, everything that followed. My six-year-old is and remains fully in tune and engaged, much to my surprise. He grieves openly and inundates me with difficult but important questions. If you say that Opa's spirit went to heaven but his body and eyes stayed at the hospital, how can he look down upon us from heaven? He speaks about my father often, imitating a funny gesture or just like tonight, remembering for the first time that he always sat in the chair right across from the TV. The same chair he was now using to watch a show. I think he happily felt his presence. Exactly four months later.

During my father's service, my six-year-old was a guiding force. With just minimal prodding, he created a poster board to remember my father, listing things further back in time than I would have remembered. And, he stood by me faithfully during my eulogy. All eyes on him, and literally as my crutch as I leaned on him heavily during the most difficult parts of my speech. He is curious and optimistic. Brave and thoughtful. Clearly a team player as we rebuild life without my father.

Coping with Death as a Three-Year-Old

And then were is my three-year-old. The child who has only known my father as a patient and has spent countless hours in hospitals from coast to coast. Since a very early age. And all the way up until the moment when the hospital chaplain gathered the family in a private room to discuss the logistics regarding my father's death.

He reminds me how much we initially kept the kids away from my father when he was in places like the ICU so as not to traumatize them with the jungle of cables and machines that were keeping him alive. Or the chance that they would forever hold the image of my father in a hospital bed as their last memory of their grandfather. Until we felt that it was not only impractical, but altogether senseless. Once the barrier was broken, I believe my kids were able to bring a smile to my father's face at times that were truly desperate and strength to their mother who was clearly struggling. It was a team effort in every sense of the word.

Four months later, however, and I realize that my three-year-old is clearly not even half the puppet we made him out to be. He has been present, in the moment, from beginning to end. He has seen and heard things every step of the way. Perhaps he was confused here and then, but no doubt he understood more than we thought. If nothing else, we owed him a simple explanation rather than skipping the conversation altogether to tell him that Opa had died. Just because he could not put the words together himself does not mean that he did not know that something very big and sad had happened in our family.

I remember squeezing him tightly and hugging him often after my father passed away. And telling him that I loved him. It was like he gave me the energy I needed to go on. And the faith to know that no matter what happened next, we would all be okay. Speaking of okay, it is one of the things he does best. Now that he is talking. Whenever he sees me crying, he draws in close to me, holds my hand and says: "It's ok, Mama. It is going to be okay."

He has learned important lessons early in life.

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    • Crystal Tatum profile image

      Crystal Tatum 5 years ago from Georgia

      Beautiful. I absolutely believe that children, even very young children, are very much aware when a death occurs. As you say, even if their minds can't process it, their souls know. Adults so often underestimate children. My father died when I was only two. The impact to my life has been extraordinary. But the common perception is that a two-year-old can't understand death and therefore can't be impacted by it. I'm not a psychologist, but I have the experience to prove that is simply not true. It may take many years to recognize the impact, but such a loss changes and shapes a child, just as it does an adult. Thank you for this lovely hub.