I’ve never really spoken to my own children about death. I should. Death is, after all, a natural part of life. Death is a topic that is often avoided in our society until we are treading through its dark waters. When it arrives, we throw ourselves into the current by immersing ourselves in the details of the arrangements. Before we know it, the visitation and funeral have come and gone, and we distract ourselves by jumping back into life. In the midst of coping with our own loss, we can forget about our children who are also grieving. It is easy to assume that children are naturally resilient, will be distracted with school or friends, or don’t want to talk about this scary subject. Perhaps, death is difficult to talk about with kids because we, ourselves, don’t really know the answers.
The way we regard death is critical to the way we experience life. When your fear of death changes, the way you live your life changes. ~ Ram Dass
A loved one’s death provides a unique opportunity to remind ourselves and teach our children the value of life.
Gratitude Softens Grief
Point out the food, flowers, cards, and donations friends and family have so generously provided. Remember, with gratitude, how the deceased made us feel, helped us, or enriched our life in some way. When we share stories about our loved one, laughter can momentarily replace tears.
Community Is Essential
As we are surrounded and embraced by family and friends, we can acknowledge the importance of helping and supporting others through difficult times. Children can be given their own tasks that make them feel valued, such as picking out their favorite pictures, writing a poem or story to share with friends and family, or helping to choose the music.
Emotions Make Us Human
When adults express sadness, children learn that it is okay to shed tears. When we stoically swallow our grief, we teach children to bury their emotions which can lead to stress and illness. Explain to children that they may be sad for a while. Invite them to share in words or a picture how they are feeling. Talk to children about your own feelings. By showing we are comfortable discussing emotions, we teach children to become better at coping with their own.
Communicate With Compassion
Children are naturally curious. Allow them to ask questions that may seem inappropriate.
I can vividly remember the first visitation I attended. I could not understand why the deceased was wearing glasses. Did he need them to see in heaven?
Talk to kids at an age appropriate level about what they will see, hear, and do at the visitation and funeral. It can be distressing to see a dead body for the first time. If they become overwhelmed during the viewing or funeral, designate a family member whom they can go to for support. This will help the child feel safe and secure.
There is no timetable for grief. Permit kids to be sad. As parents, we desperately want to see our children happy. If children seem sad, offer them a hug or allow them to vocalize their grief. Continue to talk about and share stories about the deceased. Spend time with your child engaging in fun activities like baking, crafts, kicking a ball around, or going out somewhere. This teaches kids that it’s okay to be sad and think about their loved one, but, ultimately, life is about creating new memories.
Finally, if you notice your child is having difficulty sleeping, concentrating, or seems increasingly anxious, there are resources, support groups, and counselors who offer help specifically to children.