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