Welcome to Deep-Fried Friday, where today’s topic is a bit more serious than usual.
My mother-in-law died on Monday. We were able to go see her before her passing, and it was expected and peaceful. After her death, we also visited the hospital room to say goodbye. My tween and teen boys saw their grandmother just hours before her death, and her corpse after she passed. This was their first experience of seeing a dead person, and we talked them through it.
Thinking back to my days of working as a children’s minister, I remembered a pamphlet I wrote after a prominent young woman in our church died. I have decided to reprint it here in case it helps anyone else. Of course, my approach was from a Christian worldview so the writing reflects that; however, I think there are take-aways for parents coming from various perspectives. The pamphlet was also written with preschool and elementary children in mind.
Talking to Children about Death: A Parent’s Guide
You may have discussed death with your children in the past–perhaps after the loss of a pet, grandparent, or family friend. But when someone with great visibility and impact in our church dies, the questions become more widespread. Many children are now asking their parents difficult, natural questions about death. How should we answer?
Children’s questions may arise after events related to the death of a loved one or in everyday conversations. A child may ask a few questions, go away and play, and return later with more. Don’t overwhelm them with too much information at one time. Let them take their time.
Listen carefully to your child’s questions and give simple, concrete answers. Avoid euphemisms like “passed away,” “resting in peace,” “gone to a better place,” or “lost a loved one.” Children do not understand these phrases. From their perspective, “resting in peace” makes death sound like a nap that you can’t wake up from (a scary thought for a young child) or children may wonder why we don’t simply find the one who was “lost.” Use the word “died” to explain what has happened.
Children learn through repetition, and they may need to hear an answer or explanation from you more than once. Be prepared to repeat.
Children are naturally curious about everything, including death. They may want to know details about the way someone died, the body itself, or the process of burial. It is perfectly fine to discuss some details as they ask for them.
Children want to know where the deceased is now. Saying that she is in heaven may contradict the experience of having buried our loved one. Here are a couple of specific examples to use:
1. “If I could turn your hair purple, would you still be ______[child's name]?” The child will answer yes. “If I changed your skin to blue, would you still be _____[child's name]?” Yes. [Use other examples if desired.] “Of course! There’s a part inside you that makes you who you really are, no matter what your outside body looks like. The body of ________[the deceased] is dead, but he will get a new body in heaven and be the same person inside.”
2. “The dragonfly begins as a water bug, living entirely in the water at first. Eventually, the water bug makes its way to the top of the water and sprouts wings. Its new wings are beautiful and now the water bug has become a dragonfly–as God intended. But the dragonfly cannot go back into the water and be with the other water bugs. It will need to wait until the others become dragonflies to be with them again. __________[the deceased's name] is like the dragonfly. She loves us as she always has, but she cannot return. She is happy, and we will see her again someday in heaven.”
Children observe adults go through various emotions during this time: We smile and laugh as we remember the life of the deceased, cry and hug when we consider our own loss, and communicate hope and joy at the thought of our loved one in heaven. Children may then wonder, Is this is a happy or sad time? Let children know that it is okay to be sad because we will miss our loved one and okay to be happy that she is now with God; we can be both.
Let your child be a child. Let him know that it is fine for him to play and have fun, even after a sad event such as a death.
It may be helpful to look through photos or mementos of the loved one, let your children draw a picture or write a note about her feelings, or share special memories of the deceased. You might begin with “I remember when” and tell a story about a special moment between your child and the deceased.
Their Need for Reassurance
A common question is “When will you die?” Children are seeking reassurance that they will be cared for. Don’t make promises you may not be able to keep, but let them know that you plan to be here a long time to take care of them. You can also share what plans you have arranged if something were to happen (“If I die, Aunt Jane and Uncle Joe will take good care of you because they love you”).
When someone dies from an illness or accident, children may worry about getting sick or injured themselves. Assure them that serious illnesses are accidents can cause death, but the minor stomach viruses, colds, and boo-boos we get from time to time will not.
Children may ask who will fulfill the roles that the deceased had. In essence, they are asking, “What will happen now?” Answer honestly, with details as you know them or a simple “I don’t know.” But reassure them that those things will be taken care of.
Candy Arrington, “How to Help Your Child Grieve,” 2005, http://www.family.org.
Julie Gould, “Answering Children’s Questions About Death: A Guide for Children and Adults,” 1997.
Barbara Monroe and Frances Kraus, “Coping with Grief–Bereavement: Children’s Questions,” http://www.bbc.co.uk.
Doris Stickney, Waterbugs and Dragonflies: Explaining Death to Young Children (Pilgrim Press, 1997).
The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center Patient Education Office, Coping with Grief, 2005.
J.W. Worden, Ph.D., “Talking to Children about Death,” http://www.hospicenet.org.
Carolyn S. Wilken, Ph.D., and Joyce Powell, “Learning to Live through Loss: Helping Children Understand Death,” 1996, http://www.nncc.org.
What advice, if any, do you have for helping children deal with death? Have you had any experience helping children through grief or grieving as a child yourself?