Death and Dying

Children and grief

Death and Dying

It’s All Relative – Helping Children Cope with Death and Dying

Having worked in the field of bereavement counseling for over a decade I thought I had pretty much understood the importance of involving children in the grieving process. Then one day a several years back, I found my family faced with the death of a much admired, much loved uncle. Uncle Oscar died after a brief illness in May of 2001. Because our family had been very close to Uncle Oscar it was clear that we would attend the funeral with our children Ashley(8), and Justine (6). Many family members and friends supported the fact that our girls would be attending the funeral, it seemed natural given my understanding of how children grieve and given the relationship they had with him, they were grieving too. My husband and I spoke to the girls about what was to occur prior to, during and immediately following the funeral; this included what they would see, how people may react, and what the process would look like. All seemed well until I mentioned to my family that the girls would also be coming to the cemetery for the burial. This decision was met with a great deal of anxiety and apprehension from family members; so much so that I myself started to question whether this would be a good idea. Nevertheless, I decided to go with my instinct, particularly since the girls had already expressed a desire and willingness to attend.

The day of the funeral arrived and off we went to the funeral home, where the girls were met with warm smiles. The service was beautiful and both Ashley and Justine listened and watched as other family members eulogized Uncle Oscar. We then went off to the cemetery where Justine promptly made her way directly to the front of the crowd to witness the service and burial procedure. As is customary in our tradition, each mourner has the opportunity to shovel some earth into the grave to assist in the burial process. As soon as my father-in-law completed this task, he took a step back from the grave where he stood alone. Simultaneously, Justine quietly approached her Zaidie and gently held his hand. He looked down at Justine and proceeded to give her a kiss on the forehead…it was at this precise moment that I was able to confirm what I had known instinctively – that even though this was a moment of intense grief, what better way to be reminded of how life goes on?

Later that same year the father of a friend died after a brief battle with cancer. Naturally out of respect, my husband and I attended the funeral. Our younger daughter, Justine came with us simply because we were on our way somewhere else after the service. Justine, now a veteran at attending funerals sat patiently during the service. As the procession was making it’s way to the hearse and the guests were leaving the funeral home, Justine looked up at me and promptly said, “Hurry up Mom, I don’t want to miss the good part”.

I retell these two vignettes to emphasize that Children are not born with a fear of death and dying, we as the adults around them, we teach them this. We send a strong signals  when we say, “A cemetery is no place for a child” or model our fears with comments and non-verbal behaviours that send out the message that something bad, or terrible happens at funerals. If we are to truly help the next generation support our elderly and their loved ones then we must begin by recognizing our own behaviour.

Some practical suggestions are as follows:

  • We need to use every opportunity to talk about life and death as part of our everyday routine. For example; when you purchase flowers, talk about how every living thing has a life – a beginning, a middle and an end; some lives are longer, others are shorter. It’s important that we use the correct language when we talk about death – as opposed to euphemisms, and slang words. Telling a child that someone died as a result of an accident leaves ambiguity in the mind of the child – the word accident to most children signifies urinating in their pants.
  • We need to be HONEST, SIMPLE and say it with LOVE, no sugar-coating things: “Bubbie died because her heart stopped working” or “Zaidie was very, very, very sick – a sick that couldn’t be fixed”
  • Physically place yourself eye to eye; it is helpful to sit with a child, place them on your lap or kneel down to their level so that you are not towering over them as you talk together
  • Acknowledge the developmental age of the child; while I will always advocate that parents know their children best, in general, children over the age of 5 can and should be involved in the funeral process. This is the age where children start to understand that death is irreversible which means that unlike the videos they are all too often exposed to where a character dies and then magically comes back to life when they watch the movie again, in real life living things do not come back to life.   Keep in mind that some children are more mature than others, some cannot sit though a funeral service while others can sit quietly.
  • Children need to have someone they can trust near them explaining what is going to happen, ideally this should not be one of the mourners (this includes the variety of emotional reactions they may witness or they themselves may have – and remember: feelings aren’t right or wrong, they just are!).
  • Don’t wait until a funeral to bring your children to the funeral home or cemetery – Why wait? Often the first time a child enters a funeral home or cemetery is when someone close to them has died. Instead take the opportunity to bring them to a funeral when the service is not for a close relative/friend, or go visit a deceased relative at the cemetery on a nice day when you can explain what happens without the same emotional reaction that occurs when someone close to you or them has died.

Ultimately, helping children cope when a death occurs is comprised of 3 basic elements:

                  1) Information: Who died, how did they die, how will this affect me?

2) Choice: Should I attend the funeral?

                  3) Support: Who is going to be there for me now?

In order to comfortably respond to our children we need to understand where our fears/phobia’s and attitudes come from. We must find the appropriate people and places to express our concerns, share our thoughts and address our needs so that the future generation understands that death is simply a part of life. In the words of Morrie Schwartz (from Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albiom)

“If we can teach this to our children then we can truly die without every really going away…Death ends a life, not a relationship”.