Talking to Your Child About Death
Growing up, I was exposed to a lot of death. My father was a pastor and performed every funeral I went to, with few exceptions. The first funeral I really remember, however was my Grandmother's. She was 90 and I was 10 when we took a trip to Minnesota for her funeral. It was a tremendous shock to me to see her in the coffin, on her face more makeup than I'd ever seen her wear in life. It was almost as if it wasn't her lying there, but a woman made to look like her. My grandmother was one of those people who was always teasing, laughing and making others happy. Her funeral reflected that perfectly. I don't recall anyone crying. Quite the opposite; it was a huge party in her honor.
All the funerals I attended never affected me as much as much as the death of pets, though. The only dog I ever owned as a child died of rat poison when I was 8 or 9. It was a horrible death and we all cried. It was the first time I saw my father cry. A cat got hit by a car and I didn't think I would ever get over the grief.
Death is an inevitable part of life. It's a tough subject, because one doesn't really understand the concept until a person experiences the loss of someone they loved and saw every day. As parents, we know how painful it can be. On one hand, we want to sheild our children's innocence from that pain; on the other, we know it will happen eventually and we want to prepare our children as best as we can. I have experienced a lot of personal loss. I was an identical twin. My twin was stillborn. I've felt that loss my whole life. My first daughter was born 3 months premature and died after 18 days. I've had two miscarriages. I've lost 8 neices or nephews due to miscarriage, SIDS, and preterm birth. I lost both inlaws in their 50's and my own father died three years ago. It's been tough, but I'm not afraid of death. It has given me a little bit of a place to start when my children want to talk about death. I have a few tips that might help you if you are pondering this subject.
1. Get your children a pet. Pets have short life cycles and could possibly be the first exposure your child has to death. Maybe this sounds morbid, but I have always had pets for the kids so they can deal first-hand with death. Rather than sheilding them from the pain of death, I have gently introduced them to the concept. I had a friend whose first introduction to death was in his 30's when a grandparent died. He was devastated and had a really hard time with it. If he had been exposed to it as a child, I think he might have had an easier time of it as an adult. When a pet dies, it gives you the opportunity to help your children through the greiving process. They learn that the anger and sadness is normal and good to express. They can talk about the pet and how much they love and miss them. Sit and laugh about the fun times you had with the pet and remember details. In the future, when they are facing death, they will draw on the past experience. They will remember that they got through it then and they will again.
2. If you are uncomfortable/fearful about death, your children will pick up on that. Not talking about death doesn't mean they aren't picking up your fear. If you are sad, tell them. If you are afraid of death, and they ask, just tell them that it is something that you struggle with too. I think it is important to come to terms with it yourself, as a parent so you don't pass on the fear to them.
3. Let them talk and ask questions. They may say things that sound shocking like, "When am I going to die? Are you going to die?" These are normal and valid questions. How to answer? Well, each child and circumstance is different. Your child is considering for the first time that life has a beginning and an end. They need to be reassured that you are not going anywhere and neither are they. That everyone looses someone they love. That it's important that we love each other and take care of each other every day. If they have lost a family member, they are going to need to sort through the feelings they have and sometimes that just means sitting and holding them while they talk. And, you don't always have to have an answer to every question.
4. Should children attend funerals? I have heard arguements about this on both sides. Personally I think they should. Grief is such a part of life and they can learn empathy for others' pain and learn to lean on their family when they experience pain. If a child just insists on not going, though, I think their wishes should be honored. Some people just need to grieve in private and I think we should respect that. My husband says his grandmother told the grandkids before she died that she didn't want any of them crying for her in a funeral home when she died. She wanted them to go fishing in the family fishing hole because that's where she would be. In the woods enjoying nature. So, when she died, my husband refused to go to the funeral home. He told his dad that grandma told him to go fishing, so he grabbed his fishing pole and headed out to the woods. He said she was definately there with him, and he felt a tremendous amount of peace about the whole thing. Everyone needs to deal with it in his/her own way, and we have to respect that.
5. Grief support groups and seminars can be tremendously helpful. If your family has experienced a tremendous loss, such as a child's parent or sibling, they may need extra help. For one thing, it validates their feelings and gives them a way to find help. It teaches them that sometimes we all need extra help and they should not feel embarressed or abnormal that they can't come to terms with the situation. Perhaps counselling will help them later in life when they have to go through another loss. Not every child who experiences death will require counselling, but some people are just more sensitive than others. Ask your child's doctor or a minister or teacher if you need help evaluating whether your child needs more help. Sometimes when we are experiencing grief we have a hard time helping others deal with it, too
6. Visit the grave. My twin is buried in the Philippines, and I've never been able to visit her grave and that has always made me sad. I took my children to their sister's grave a couple times. I made it calm and matter of fact. I didn't display any outward signs of grief in front of them. I talked about how beautiful and tiny she was and how much I miss her. We walked around and looked at other grave stones. I moved away from that state when the kids were small, so we don't visit the grave any more. This is a personal thing for different people. Some people need to visit the grave on a regular basis. I don't have that need. But if your child asks to visit the grave, and you live close enough, by all means, honor the request.
I would appreciate any comments anyone has about this subject. I'm not a trained counselor and I know I don't have all the answers. Perhaps you have tips you can share with us. I know that I will be dealing with death again eventually, and appreciate suggestions. I found a terrific article online that discusses this in great detail and I think it would be a great resource for parents: http://www.hospicenet.org/html/talking.html