When a Loved One Dies: How We Can Help Our Kids


I was in second grade when my grandfather died unexpectedly.  It was a horribly difficult time made even harder by the fact that he died a day after my family returned from the funeral of another family member.  As a child I recall feeling confused, sad and so scared I couldn’t even go into the living room to see my grieving grandmother.

The death of a loved one is difficult to explain to children, especially as we adults are trying to process our own loss, sadness and grief.  Funerals are emotional and perplexing.  I didn’t go to my grandfather’s.  Because a few days earlier, I blacked out during the open-casket funeral for my great-aunt.  Not that my parents didn’t prepare me .  They explained the best they could what would happen, what I would see that day (“She will look like she’s sleeping.”).  Despite their best efforts, I was simply overcome.

None of us is prepared to accept loss.  Whether we have been through it or not.  Unfortunately, we will all experience it at one time or another.  As heartbreaking as it is to think about, our children will as well.  Perhaps even as children.  How can we help them through it, given we are also hurting?

Where do I start?  “Feeling” and accepting our own emotions is the first step.  Then honesty and openness are the next.  It’s important to tell children the sad news in a simple, straightforward manner.  Chose to tell them in a place where they feel secure, like in their bedroom, or in a cozy chair or playroom.  If you feel overcome by the news yourself, choose someone close to you and your child to talk with her, like your spouse.  And be sure to break the news in a normal, not hushed, voice as a whispered tone can frighten some children.

How do I answer my child’s questions?  Always invite questions from your child and answer as honestly as possible; questions fuel a healthy grieving process.  One way to explain death, especially to concrete-thinking preschoolers and elementary school-aged children, is to simply say the person’s “body stopped working.”  Many kids ask where the deceased has gone but experts state this is not an abstract question about the afterlife (remember, these kids are pretty literal):  it’s better to say the person “is in the cemetery.”  Of course, if your beliefs include an afterlife, this is an appropriate time to discuss that in basic terms.  As parents know, younger children repeat the same questions over and over even in the best of circumstances, and will likely do so now.  This means they need to know the story has not changed.  You may need to explain several times that the person “isn’t (or can’t) coming back,”  In our own grief repetition can be especially difficult, but remember how important patience is with very young kids; finality and permanence of any kind is a tough concept for them.

How might my child react to a death?  Be prepared for your child to react to the sad news in her own way, not necessarily in the manner adults respond.  Children may misbehave, rebel or withdraw.  Feelings of guilt are also common.  A younger child may believe wishing someone were dead caused the person to die.  Teenagers may wonder “Why him and not me?”  especially if the deceased is a classmate.  Teenagers can also become afraid to engage in their usual activities, such as driving a car, if a peer died in a car accident.  Being aware of these possibilities ahead of time can help your child immensely.

How can I best comfort my child?  Let your child see you grieve.  This lets her know it’s ok to do so themselves.  Don’t be afraid to cry together and share your feelings.  And do share good memories of your loved one.

Should my child attend the funeral?  We want to protect our children from hurt and intense emotions, so it’s natural to feel a funeral would be a traumatic experience for them.  However, children need to say their own goodbyes, grieve and participate in a loved one’s celebration of life.   Here’s how to prepare them:

~Explain what the funeral home or church looks like.

~If there is to be a casket and a viewing, describe that your loved one will be lying very still and not breathing.  Also, he may look somewhat different, even younger, because a special makeup has been used on his face.  Emphasize your loved one will only be seen from the waist up (the reason I fainted at my aunt’s funeral was because I thought she lost her legs.).

~Help your child understand how to behave and how others may behave at the funeral.  Emotions will vary.

~Explain the internment and what the service means.

Children may also wish to have a role in the funeral and by all means encourage them to do so.  A younger child may want to place a special memento in the casket or lay a flower  at the gravesite.  Older children may wish to recite a poem at the funeral.  And plan to visit the cemetery with your child in the months following the service, taking flowers or special decorations along to leave with your loved one.

It’s important for children to understand that death is a part of life but keep in mind if your child really does not wish to participate in the funeral services, it is best not to force her to do so .  However, still set aside time to talk with your child about her feelings, what it means when a loved one dies and to answer her questions.  Whether your child attends the funeral or not, be honest and don’t be afraid to respond with an “I don’t know.” if you don’t have another answer.

What else do I need to know?  Be aware of what others may say to your child during this time.  It’s common to hear “(Your loved one) is better off now.”  People only mean to be comforting but a child may wonder how being dead is better than being alive.  And help your child with the attention she may receive as well:  people will want to tell her they are sorry, so encourage a simple “Thank you” in response.

They many be young, but children, like adults, can have a difficult time coping with the loss of a loved one.  Some signs they may need additional help and support:

difficulty with tasks they have previously been able to complete independently

prolonged emotionally fragility

fears and nightmares

bettwetting or difficulties with toileting

problems sleeping


Your child’s school, pediatrician or pastor can help you find an appropriate professional to help your child.


Should I Let My Child Quit?

Channelling Johnny Cash. But he'd rather be acting.

Channelling Johnny Cash. But he’d rather be acting.

There is a well-known story about Olympic champion Gabrielle Douglas and the turning point in her gymnastics career.  She was living with a host family in Iowa so she could work with Liang Chow, the coach who trained Shawn Johnson.  But being terribly homesick for her family and life in Virginia, she told her mother she wanted to quit gymnastics.  Upon hearing this Gabby’s mom read her the riot act and, as we all know, the rest is history.

I began learning the trumpet at age nine.  Shortly thereafter I got braces and could hardly play a note.  My instructor brought me to tears so I told my mom I wanted to quit.  And if she hadn’t requested a different teacher for me, I wouldn’t have become a renowned classical trumpet player with a record deal.  (Ok, I never became NEARLY that good but did go on to play through high school and into college.  And I can play a wicked rendition of Frosty the Snowman at Christmastime…)

Many of us have been there.  For those of us parents who haven’t, we likely will.  When one of our kids wants to quit an activity, we automatically think about what he could miss out on by ending the experience.  Whether it be greatness (Gabrielle Douglas) or simple enjoyment and appreciation (me) or something in between, we reflexively say:

No way.  You need to give it a chance. Continue reading

Kids Do Listen, Sometimes Years Later


I don’t remember what I made, but I do remember the process.  Or at least, I remember what I disliked about it.  The measuring, the tailor’s tacks, the ironing of narrow seams.  In short, my mom tried to teach me how to sew and I really, really, didn’t want to learn.

I was the teenage daughter of an exquisite seamstress:  she made her own wedding dress.  She helped sew bridesmaid’s dresses for her sister.  She painstakingly pieced together, with her two equally talented sisters, a quilt for their parents.  My mom grew up sewing.  And thought I should, too. Continue reading

What Every Parent Needs to Know About Kids and Sleep


It still sticks in my brain:  the girls teasing me about the time I went to bed.  Why?  Because I wasn’t smart enough to not answer when they asked, even though they weren’t my friends and kinda mean.  So of course my 8 o’clock bedtime became fodder for calling me a “baby.”

Even though I slept like one, this “baby” would have much preferred to stay up later.  What kid doesn’t?   But my parents were unwavering on when I went to bed, which was good:  I went out fast and rarely awakened during the night.  So I must have needed the extra two hours that the “cool” kids  were missing out on with their stated 10:00 bedtimes.  Maybe that was just me.  And now my kids as well.  If they aren’t out by 8:30, God help us all the next day.

We think of sleep as natural and routine.  We often don’t give it a second thought and set bedtimes for our kids based on daily schedules, when the grind finally winds down.  We may not consider how much they truly need to function during waking hours.   As summer break, with its longer days and warmer evenings, vacations and day camp, comes to an end, we parents push bedtimes forward to the “school night” schedule but challenges do arise.  With a seemingly small window of time between school and “lights out!” homework and sports and other extracurricular activities wreak havoc with our best bedtime intentions.

But how important is an adequate night’s sleep?  Very, if kids are to be ready to learn for a full seven hours, five days a week.  Lack of a good night’s rest can lead to increased distractibility, impulsivity and poor concentration.   Not exactly the best frame of mind in which to learn.  That said, what exactly is the definition of a good night’s sleep?  The answer varies, depending on your child’s age.  And the answer may also surprise you. Here’s what you need to know: Continue reading

Kids Behaving Badly = Bad Parenting?



As a kid I marveled at how two words like shut and up, harmless when they stand separately, could join up to become so hurtful.  Like when hydrogen and oxygen come together, these words become something very different from their component parts.  And when my son bellowed “SHUT UP!” to an acquaintance, mortification didn’t begin to describe our reaction.  It seemed the world stopped spinning.  Proverbial crickets chirped so loud that our ears were ringing. The stunning paralytic effect of those two words kept us from swooping in and immediately rectifying what had gone terribly wrong.  Our reaction, or lack thereof, did not go unnoticed by the adult targeted by my son’s ire.  Her daggered look implied we must be the worst parents ever for raising a child to be so rude. Continue reading

An Argument in Favor of Chemical Sunscreens


A few years ago, I tried a new sunscreen.  Not just a different brand from the drugstore, but something completely different.  The active ingredient was titanium oxide  but it was formulated in a tinted powder and applied with a brush, much like foundation.   The person who recommended it was a fair-skinned pediatrician who loved to sail, and with that kind of multifactorial endorsement, I bought a jar (at a rather hefty price tag).  I liked the idea of a non-greasy, lightweight sunscreen that wouldn’t appear smeary-white if we didn’t get applied evenly.  Certain it would be the best thing since well, regular sunscreen,  I was eager to give this seemingly remarkable product a test drive.  On a hiking trip in the desert of New Mexico.

Boy was that ever stupid. Continue reading

It’s Time to Return to School: Should I Vaccinate My Children?

It’s hard to believe it’s time for our kids to return to school.  Today was “Fall Check-In Day” (aka Registration Day)  for my kids.  Not being Kindergarteners, or otherwise new to the school, our paperwork process was pretty straightforward.  But for new families, registration can be a seemingly insurmountable pile of blank forms and information.  I remember those days…especially when I had three sets of vaccination records to dig up and then transcribe to official school documents!  But I’m taking a long time to get to my point.  Given it’s that time of year to get school health records in order, and given our community, and our elementary school in particular, is way under the acceptable vaccination rate for herd immunity, I decided to repost this essay from a few months ago on the importance of vaccinating our children: Continue reading

Physical or a Feeling. What is Truly a Home?

I am a clean freak.  Thus this is hanging on our mantle.  I read it 100 times a day.

I am a clean freak. Thus this is hanging on our mantle. I read it 100 times a day.

Your house is small and dirty.  (So there.)  That statement was the trump card another child played in his argument with my oldest son (apparently over legos).  The six-year-old couldn’t have understood the “grown up” interpretation of his words, the comparisons made by adults in attempt to “win” in the material world and therefore life itself.  But neither could my 10-year-old son comprehend such craziness.  He was, not surprisingly, hurt by the critique.  Small and dirty implied his world was inadequate, that the place his father and mother provided for him was, well, small and dirty.

When my son told me about this, I recalled apartment #319 in university family housing, my husband’s and my first home.   It had sweaty floors when spring warmed the air quicker than the concrete. Cockroaches made a barracks out of our kitchen cupboards.  And it was about the size of a two-car garage.  That was small and dirty.  But fast forward to the present.  Our home has a two-car garage but it’s certainly not a McMansion.  It is mold- and roach-free. Yes, there are legos strewn about, in a perplexing but perfect order that only my son understands.  I’m told that good homes have sticky floors, dirty ovens and happy kids, which is reassuring as we have the sticky, dirty and (most of the time) happy down-pat.  There may be grit on the kitchen floor from making cookies and some toothpaste dried in the bathroom sink but that’s just life.

However my son, upset and with hurt feelings, didn’t need to hear my from-whence-we-came real estate story.  My “Roach Approach” wouldn’t do squat for the emotional lashing my son felt.   And he was sophisticated enough that the easy answer of kids-can-say-mean-things-sometimes would not comfort him.  At age ten, especially at age ten, my son needed to hear something more, a basic life lesson.  Something to help him work through the frustrated words of someone much younger, but felt at a much higher level.  So I said to him:

“Kiddo, it’s not how a home looks, it’s how a home feels that’s important.”

It won’t pass a white glove test.  It doesn’t contain exquisite furnishings.  But our house is a home.  Cushy pillows and a dog and loads of legos.  There is fun, there is love and it is a safe place.  The place where my son and his brother and sister can always be themselves and be accepted for the great kids they are.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit rattled by small and dirty.  I wondered why this child didn’t choose a more six-year-old-like insult and hurl a “You stink and your legos are yucky!” my son’s way.   But it doesn’t matter.  Because as the wall in Jimmy John’s sandwich shop said so well:


The Holly Story and Nothing But the Holly Story


It came in an oversized white rectangular box.  I was ten, maybe twelve, and beyond the tradition of hunting for Easter eggs.  And I was certainly “over” my belief in the Easter Bunny.  But my grandparents, who held the secular rituals of Easter dear, still gave gifts.  Thus the rather simple box laying in my lap that morning several decades ago.

I was startled to find what was inside; it appeared to be a dismembered stuffed animal.  I was startled, and am afraid I let out an “Oh!” or some similar exclamation because the sight was a bit disturbing:  long, velvety tan ears in direct juxtaposition with equally soft stuffed feet.  But upon further inspection, I found a sweet-expressioned, large-eyed rabbit with disproportionately long legs.  It had been arranged into an enviable forward fold in the tissue paper, thus the distorted appearance.  It wasn’t cute, in my opinion.  In fact, I thought it a weird gift.  But of course I didn’t say anything but a sincere and grateful thank-you to my beloved grandparents who doted on their only grandchild. Continue reading

Don’t Get Burned by the Sunscreen Controversy


Everyone notices when someone sports that gorgeous sun-bronzed skin from a sunny vacation.  But my family?  The people who get sunburned through car windows?  We return from a week away and people look at a quizzically and say, “Where did you go, again?  Submarine cruise?”

I honestly could kick myself for not buying stock in a sunscreen manufacturer before we had kids…given their genetic legacy I knew they would be more sun-sensitive than a field of solar panels.

Most of us use more sunscreen in the summer than any other time of year.  And most of us don’t think twice about slathering it on our kids or ourselves because the jury has been out on the topic for a long, long time:  sunscreen, when used properly, not only prevents sunburn but reduces the risk of skin aging and skin cancers (notably melanoma).  Despite the difficult-to-pronounce ingredient list few of us give the exposure to such a second thought, especially given the alternatives: painful, blistering, aging skin and possibly the big “C.”  Not to mention no one wants the papier-mâché appearance of titanium or zinc-based (“physical”) sunscreens unless limited to the noses of their children (which is darn cute).

But what about all those chemicals?  Their safety has been a question mark in the back of my brain, and perhaps yours as well.  But given few viable other alternatives, I just keep a-slatherin’.

Until my husband emailed me this link: Continue reading