How To Help Young Children Through Their Grieving Process, What Should We Tell Them About Death and Dying?
The Great Debate
"You aren't going to let Jami go to the funeral are you?"
I was asked this question repeatedly about my four year old daughter during the week between my father's death and his funeral.
"Only if she wants to." I answered just as many times as I was asked.
Sometimes my answer was met with a soft sharp intake of breathe and the raised eyebrows of surprise, and sometimes with disapproving silence. "But don't you think that she is too young?" the questioner sometimes asked hopefully, as though they were hoping I would change my mind. For six days this question was asked by well-meaning friends, family members and the occasional acquaintance; some of them thought that she was too young to understand what was going on, and some thought that seeing my father's body in the casket would scar her for life, and still others didn't think that it was a good idea for her to attend because she might get restless and disrupt the service for others. It seemed everyone had an opinion, and most of them differed from mine.
Perhaps it was the way I was raised; or more precisely, the way my father was raised, growing up on a farm in northeastern Texas, but as shocked as some people seemed to be when they found out that I planned to allow my young daughter to attend the funeral, is exactly how ridiculous it seems to me, to not allow her to.
"Death is a part of life," I could hear my dad saying to me, "all living things will die someday."
Growing up, I was included in the grieving process. When a grandparent or other relative died, it wasn't hidden from me, and it wasn't candy-coated. It was explained, simply when I was very young, the explanation taking on more context as I grew older, or as my questions became more in-depth. I was never forced to view a body, but I was given the choice to do so if I felt that I needed to. I, in return, have taught my own children the same basic concepts about life and death.
Jami was a surprise baby, born twelve years after her older sister, and seven months after I had moved my family, lock, stock and barrel, back to my hometown, and into my childhood home, so that I could become my father's primary caregiver.
From birth, she has accompanied me to and from the hospital during dad's numerous hospitalizations; I nursed her in the dim light of my father's hospital room while he slept; and she took her first steps in the waiting room of Little Company of Mary, the hospital where dad had his knee replacement surgery in 2008. By the time that she was two and a half, Jami had become my assistant caregiver, running to tell me if Grandpa was up walking around without his cane, often times bringing me the cane itself so that I would understand. At three years of age, she had become his junk food accomplice, sneaking two spoons, and a gallon of chocolate chip ice cream out of the freezer and into his room, where I caught them having ice cream for breakfast at eight-thirty in the morning. Within the last few months, as my father had become bed-ridden and less able to communicate, Jami had spent a part of everyday making up songs to sing to him, and lying on the floor in his room, watching cartoons with him while he napped. Jami had always known that Grandpa was sick, and for as long as she had been able to understand it, she had always known that Grandpa would someday die and that his soul would go to heaven to be with her "grandma who's-an-angel-in-heaven," as she called my mom, who had died when I was only eleven, and her great-grandmother, Bubbie, who had died when she was seven months old.
Because my dad was on hospice, he died at home, and Jami who was with him right up until bedtime the night before, was home when he died, and had chosen to go into his bedroom with her older sister and I to say good-bye to him, before they came to take him to the mortuary.
While some of my family and friends worried that seeing my father lying in his coffin, or exposure to the grief of others, would scar her emotionally for the rest of her life, I was more worried about the scars that would be left if she wasn't allowed to grieve for the man who had been a fixture in her daily world. If she wanted to attend the visitation and the funeral, then yes, I was going to allow it.
The great debate raged on for the entirety of the week, and in the end it really was for naught;
On the morning of the viewing, while fixing her breakfast, I turned around to find that Jami, with her little face all scrunched up as though she were deep in thought, was standing backward on top of a dining room chair so that she was facing me in the kitchen.
"Jami, please sit down before you fall down." I said. "But Mommy, I have to ask you something." she replied. "Well, would you please ask me after you sit down? I asked, as I moved her scrambled eggs from pan to plate. "Mommy," she pressed on as though she hadn't heard me at all, "where is Grandpa's body? “Grandpa’s body is at the mortuary," I answered as I scooped her up with one arm, turned her around, and sat her back down in the chair, this time facing in the right direction, and placed her eggs on the table in front of her. Handing her a fork, I sat down in the chair to the left of her, "We're going to have the viewing this evening," I reminded her. "The viewing is so that our other family, your aunts and uncles and cousins, your Nana and your Papa, and some of Grandpa's friends can come and see him one last time, and say good-bye before the funeral tomorrow. Do you think that you would like to come with Mommy and see Grandpa's body one more time and say good-bye?"
With the fork in her hand hovering motionless above her plate, her face took on that scrunched thinking look again, and she was quiet for a few moments as she thought about it.
"No," she finally answered, "Grandpa isn't there anymore, he's in heaven with my grandma-who's-an-angel-in-heaven."
And that was the end of that. After all the questions and answers and debating that had gone on during the week, Jami had the final say, and deciding that she had already sufficiently said her good-byes, she didn't need to attend either the viewing or the funeral.
Should Children Be Shielded From Death & the Mourning Process?
In today's society, when most people die in a hospital or a nursing home, where regulations do not allow for visitors under the age of twelve, and there are also restrictions as to who can visit and when, the dying are to some extent cut off from family, friends, and loved ones, during those precious last moments of life. The isolation from the process of dying has caused a sort of emotional disconnect that has lent to death an added air of mystery and apprehension, which I believe is in part, responsible for the modern day perception that children should be sheltered and protected from the sad truths associated with the death of a loved one. If we do not understand the process, how can we explain it to a child? If we fear our own mortality, then how can we not impart that fear to our children?
Just over a hundred years ago, death was an intrinsic part of family life, and children were more likely to experience the death of a loved one first hand at home. Children, just like the adults, viewed the body of the deceased, attended the wake, funeral, and the burial. It was through this personal experience that they learned that death is a natural part of life, and by being allowed to witness and to share in the grieving process as a part of the family unit, the children of a century ago also learned that while a period of mourning when a loved one passed was an unavoidable reality, in time the grief and sadness would fade, and that life would go on. When neither protected nor shielded from the truth that every living thing will eventually die, and provided with the example of the grieving adults around them, these children were given the skills to cope with such losses.
In most cases, even very young children are aware of death on some level, and preschool children know far more about death than most adults will give them credit for; And why wouldn't they? Death is a natural part of life, and as such, it is integrated into our daily lives. Children need only to look around them when playing outside to see a dead bird, insect, or animal. The average preschooler watches at least one instance of death per day on TV, and they hear about it from their parents in the form of the fairy tales and bedtime stories that we read to them each night. It is a well-known fact that children are the keenest of all observers, and that they see and hear everything that goes on in their environment, even if we really wish that they didn't, in some neighborhoods where there is a higher crime rate, it isn't uncommon for violent death to permeate daily life.
It is estimated that at least six percent of all children born in the United States will experience the loss of a parent before they reach the age of fifteen, and according to the experts, nearly all children will experience the death of a close relative or loved one before they are adults. Regardless of whether we choose to discuss it with them or not, the death of a loved one is still going to create the absence of a physical presence in their lives that they will also mourn. Children need to know that despite a deeply felt loss, we are all able to pick up the pieces and go on living a normal life again.
Understanding Death By Developmental Age
Toddler-Preschool Ages 2 - 5
School Age Children Ages 6- 9
School Age Children Ages 10 - 12
Adolescents & Teens
May begin to ask questions about death
Understands that all living things will die
Comprehend fully that all living things die, and that death is irreversible.
Understand death and its implications more closely to the adult point of view
May understand that a death has occurred, but not fully understand implications
Understands that death is the cessation of bodily functions
Comprehends that they will someday dies too
May find it more difficult than younger children to deal with sadness and sorrow
May believe that death is reversible or temporary
Understands that death is permanent
May begin to work on developing their own philosophical views of life and death
May become intrigued with the concept of seeking the meaning of life
May not have the words to express their grief or fear
May believe that they can escape death by their own ingenuity
May begin to worry that they could die at any time, (especially true if experiencing the death of a peer)
May begin working on their own philosophical view of life and death
May be unable to express their feelings or fears
May begin to personify death as an actual being, (a skeleton, an angel of death, or a reaper)
Are capable of taking part in death rituals such as wakes, condolence calls, and funerals
May use thrill seeking or risk taking as a way to confirm their control over their own mortality
May blame themselves or believe that the loved one died because they misbehaved
May have nightmares about their personifications
May be so overwhelmed by the death of a loved one that they act as though nothing has happened
May use risky behavior to combat fears of death and dying
May appear to be unconcerned about the death of a grandparent, but will react strongly to the death of a pet.
May have a morbid curiosity about death
Repressed feelings may surface in physical symptoms such as stomachache, headache or unusual complaints of tiredness
May exhibit behavioral changes such as sexual promiscuity, dropping out of school, or experimentation with drugs or alcohol
May act out their feelings by pretending that a toy or pet is dying
May talk incessantly about the details of death
May experience behavioral changes such as, daydreaming in class or decline in academic performance
May feel anger or rage at the world
May ask the same questions repeatedly
May express reluctance to go to school
May feel vulnerable and begin to exhibit some more childlike behaviors`
May begin to ask questions about what happens spiritually
May grieve alone or share their grief with others
Repressed feelings may bring on physical symptoms such as headache, or chest pain
Tips For Talking To Your Child About Death
Children know when we are stretching the truth
If This Is Their First Experience With Death, Find Out What They Already Know .
Remember that even very young children are aware of death on some level much sooner than most adults think that they are.
Keep it Simple,
Avoid a long drawn out lecture and instead choose answers that are age appropriate.
Explain the Circle of Life to Them
Every living thing is part of a life-cycle; it is born, (or it sprouts, or is hatched), it lives, and eventually it dies, and makes room for the birth of something else.
If Possible, Open Dialogue About Death During an Unemotional Moment
Perhaps by discussing the death of a prominent person who the child has learned about from t.v. or at school, or by discussing a dead flower, insect or bird.
Explain What Death Means
Grandfather died. His heart has stopped beating and he no longer breathes in and out anymore. He doesn't need to eat or go to the bathroom. He cannot see, hear, or move. He cannot feel pain. Being dead is not the same as sleeping. When you are alive, all of your body parts work, the same as when you are sleeping, When a person dies, his body has stopped working. The part of Grandfather that made him Grandfather when he was alive is now gone and all that is left is his body. His body was like an egg shell, it housed his soul, but now that his soul has gone, it is like an egg shell with out the egg inside.
Explain How They & The People Around Them Might Be Feeling When Someone Dies
Children handle these things better when they are prepared, so let them know before hand that the loss of a loved one may make people feel sad, mad, or confused, and that people often cry when someone they love dies
Validate Their Feelings & Encourage Them To Share Their Thoughts & Observations
Let them know that it is okay to feel sad, it is okay to cry and it is okay to feel angry if that is how they feel. Sharing your feelings or observations with them may be the best way to get them to open up about their's
Avoid Using Euphemisms Such as "Eternal Rest," or "Rest in Peace"
Young children may confuse these terms with sleeping and may become afraid to nap or to go to bed at night.
Use Caution When Using Religious Beliefs to Explain Death
Religious beliefs and ideals are comforting, but unless religion is regular part of a child's world, it is better to rely on the concrete facts.
How To Help A Child Understand and Cope With Loss
Across the board, from hospice nurses to child psychologists, experts are in agreement that, while the intentions of those parents and guardians who wish to protect their children from the subject of death and dying have good intentions, the potential for long term emotional damage when doing so runs high. Since children of all ages can sense the tiniest of upsets in their little universe, and so when we attempt to hide these sort of life altering events from them, they know that we are doing so, and may leave the impression of distrust in its wake. Furthermore, when we avoid discussing death with our children, we are impressing upon their sub-conscious that death is something so horrible that neither Mommy or Daddy can talk about it., which may very realistically only add to their worry, stress, and fear. No matter what we tell them, or don't tell them, the death of a loved one means loss of a living being in their life, and a child will still feel and mourn that loss.
When talking to our children about death and dying, we should remember to be sensitive to where they are developmentally and by experience; a very young child who has experienced the loss of a family pet, may be more prepared to understand death and it's complexities than a child who has not. For young children, who have a more limited vocabulary, and a lesser understanding than adults, we may need to think about the phrasing of our message; when we tell a child that Grandfather died because he was old, we may be setting them up for later disappointment or future distrust when they find out that young people sometimes die too. It may be better to say to them something along the lines of, Grandfather lived a long time before he died, and most people live a long time, but sometimes younger people die too , and to head off apprehension, you may want to reassure them by stating something like; though I expect the you and I will live a long time.
Preschool and even older school aged children may be confused and even frightened by many of the euphemisms used in describing death. Phrases such as, eternal peace, and rest in peace, should be avoided when discussing the death of a loved one with a child, as they may connect sleeping with death, resulting in a fear of taking a nap or going to sleep at night. It should also be remembered that similarly, small children who cannot differentiate between minor temporary ailments and catastrophic or fatal illnesses, may suffer from increased stress of worrying that a minor bout of cold or flu will kill them or their loved ones.
While many are comforted and strengthened by faith in religious beliefs, It is important to use caution when speaking to young children in religious terms such as, going to heaven, and it was God's will, when speaking to them about death and dying, if religion has not been a consistent force in their lives, it may only further confuse them, or worse, foster the fear that God and angels are lurking in the shadows just waiting to snatch them or their loved ones and take them away from home and family forever.
According to Dr. Earl A. Grollman (Explaining Death to Children), if possible, parents should not wait until there is a death in the family to begin a dialogue with young children about death, we should instead begin talking to them about death when the opportunity presents itself, perhaps by discussing dead flowers, trees, insects, or birds, or maybe when a child sees on TV. or learns in school that a prominent person has died, in this way we are not emotionally involved ourselves, and can answer questions with honest, unemotional, and simple age appropriate answers. For example; giving very young children, who are looking for simple explanations, long lectures or complicated answers will most likely only bore or confuse them and so it is best to provide them concrete answers in terms that are familiar. A good way to do this is by explaining the absence of life functions, When someone dies, they do not breathe, eat, talk, think, or feel anymore; When dogs die they do not bark, run or play anymore; When a flower dies is does not grow or bloom anymore, etc. By approaching the subject in a calm, honest and emotionless manner, we are giving our children needed information that will be useful in preparing them for a time of crisis, and making it easier for them to approach us about death at a time when they are upset.
By opening a dialogue with our children when they are young, openly sharing our feelings, and being sensitive to their questions about death, and their expressions of grief, we can help them to fully understand and cope with the sadness and sorrow associated with the loss of life.