Thursday, October 21, 2010

Talking With Children About Death

My father-in-law passed away a few weeks ago. 

We knew he was sick, but we were not prepared for the end to come so soon.  And really, who among us is ever prepared for the end to come at all for someone who has been such an integral part of our lives . . .

It isn't the first time that I've faced the death of a loved one.  But it is the first time that I've faced it with children, particularly one very astute six year-old who understands things far beyond her years.

So when we realized that the end was near, I knew that I had to talk to her, and explain to her, and answer any questions she might have.

This would have been easier had I known the answers myself . . .

As it stands, I decided to do a little research.  I googled "talking to kids about death" and came up with some obnoxiously self-righteous articles from psychotherapists who claim to know everything and expect every child to be the same.

There seemed to be way too much emphasis on what you shouldn't tell children.  I'm a pretty big fan of open lines of communication, and attached parenting in general. 

At four, my daughter knew how her baby brother was going to come out (and had a very vague idea of how he got in), so this didn't seem like the time to be holding back information. 

Like I'm going to take advice from these people about what to say to my child, a child they've never met.  None of their ideas and suggestions seemed relevant to our situation.

So being the huge fan of books that I am, I turned to Amazon.  I found a couple of children's books that looked decent (not too saccharine and not too dumbed down) and one for adults that at least appeared intelligent.  But in the midst of hospital visits and making sure my kids were cared for and preparing for a funeral in less than 48 hours, I never managed a trip to the bookstore.

And that turned out to be just fine.

I've always loved the saying that"you are the expert on your own child."  I like to read and do research and get ideas from other parents and even experts on all sorts of parenting issues, but in the end, only I know what is right for my family. 

This time was no different.

In the end, I just talked to her.  I told her honestly what I knew, and I told her that there was a lot I didn't know.  She had lots of questions, but none of them were the questions I expected. 

We as adults often seem to project our own grief and emotion and fear of death and the unknown onto our children, when they are processing the entire experience quite differently.  As in many situations, if we just ask them what they're feeling and follow their lead, parenting can be made quite a bit easier.

I've compiled a short list of what I've learned from my own experience in talking with my daughter, so that other parents can get some ideas to think about if this situation arises in your family.  Everything here may not work for you, but at least it's a place to start.
  1. Honesty is the best policy.  Children, even at very young ages, are a lot smarter than most of us give them credit for.  They can tell when mom and dad are sad, or when there is tension in the air.  Smiling and telling them that everything is okay will only confuse them more.  Be honest.  If you're facing the loss of a parent, tell them that you are sad and scared.  It's a normal human reaction for you, and an important learning experience for them. 
  2. Don't leave them in the dark.  When I started leaving my children with my mom, and spending a lot of time at the hospital with my husband, I knew it was time to explain what was going on.  Not telling kids doesn't protect them; it blindsides them.  You don't have to share every detail with them--you probably shouldn't--but show them respect, and acknowledge them as an important part of the family with feelings that matter just as much as the grown-ups.   
  3. Talk less, ask more.  Parents have a habit of talking too much.  Chances are, your children will have lots of questions.  Let those questions be your guide.  "What do you want to know?"  is an easy way to get the conversation started.  For example, my daughter was very interested in the details of the wake and the funeral, and wanted to know precisely what was going to happen and why.  We ended up talking a lot about rituals and customs and celebrating the circle of life, all things I probably wouldn't have brought up on my own.  She was also fascinated by the details of how and why he got sick, and what caused his body to stop working.  Her interest in the technical aspects of the situation instead of the emotional aspects intrigued me, as it gave me new insight into her personality and the way her mind works.   
  4. Avoid the sleep metaphor.  This one isn't mine--I read it somewhere--but I think it makes sense.  If you tell a child that the loved one in the coffin is "sleeping," they may be afraid to go to sleep for fear they'll never wake up.  This goes back to the issue of honesty; they aren't sleeping, so why tell children that they are . . .
  5. Be open to the wisdom of children.  In talking to my six year-old about the meaning of life and death, I found myself wondering who was learning from who.  Many of her questions astounded me, but what amazed me the most was her simple acceptance of death as a sad but necessary part of life.  
  6. Admit it when you don't know.  "Mommy," my daughter asked, "If his eyes stay in his body, how will he see us from heaven?"  Ummm . . . . I found out the hard way that it's quite difficult to explain the concept of bodies and souls to your child when your own belief system isn't clearly defined.  Death forces us as adults to confront issues that we push to the back of our minds in everyday life; children force us to admit when we ourselves are struggling to find the answers.  If you don't know, tell them you don't know.  But then involve them in your quest for answers.  For us, this means a renewed conviction to attend church regularly.  For you, it may be something very different.  Don't feel like you're supposed to always know the answers; instead make it a learning experience for both of you.
Have you faced the death of a loved one with your child?  How old were they?  How did you handle it?

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