Helping a Child Cope with Death
Death. Not exactly a positive way to begin any type of writing but one that is inevitable. Thus far in my mere twenty seven years of life, death has impacted me in so many different ways. I’ve lost a husband, a boyfriend, and a grandfather; among countless others that were extended family. Not exactly how I wanted my life to go but those were the cards I was dealt.
After only two years of marriage, to the date, my husband and father of our three month old daughter, passed away in July 2010. That experience alone shook me to my core. Fast forward three years and a boyfriend I had at the time passed away. Two years later my maternal grandfather passed away. A man of strong character who was taken before I was ready.
My daughter was an infant when her father passed away, three years old when my boyfriend passed, and five years old when her great grandpa died. She wasn’t old enough to remember her dad or the events leading up to his death, therefore, I did not have to help her grieve during that time. Instead she was my rock.
When my boyfriend passed away she was not at home with me when it happened but she was old enough to ask questions. Her questions at that age were simple. “Where’s Cris?” she asked. “He went to Heaven to live with Jesus”, I replied. “Is he coming back?” “No baby, that’s where he lives now. We will see him again one day.” That was the extent of our death conversation then.
Fast forward to the ripe old age of five years old when questions become more in-depth. “Did grandpa die?” “Yes baby, he’s in Heaven now.” “Where’s Heaven?” “Well, it’s way above the Earth, past the moon and the stars.” “Are we going to Heaven?” “Yes baby, one day we will.” “Are we going to die too?” “One day we will.” Conversation with a five year old are much different than with a three year old. Questions turn into worldly discussions.
There are many controversial views on how to approach the topic of death with a child. For me, I jumped right in with no hesitation because my child is inquisitive and relentless when it comes to wanting answers.
3 tips that hopefully will help when that time comes:
· Be calm, rational, and make sure you’re level headed before you even begin the conversation. I’ve tried both tactics: sobbing while telling my child someone passed away and sobbing alone before talking to her. I can honestly say that getting out my hard felt tears before talking to her helped way more than the other scenario. Children are fragile beings and don’t need any more chaos if you can prevent it. Your children are looking to you for a response. Body language speaks volumes even if you have no words.
· Use child friendly language and simple sentences. Children are not philosophers, yet, and don’t understand medical terminology. Your best bet is to make the conversation age appropriate and don’t elaborate on the details; unless your child is a teenager where they are a bit more emotionally capable of handling such things.
· Be open and honest about your own feelings. Showing your children your vulnerable side will not make you appear weak in their eyes. Quite the opposite. They will look at you with admiration at how strong and honest you are being with them. That may even help build trust with your child if it wasn’t there before.
The great debate between taking a child to a funeral or not.
I for one didn’t take my daughter with me when she was three years old. In my opinion, she was too little and unable to understand what was going on. She would have been more interested in playing with the bulletin, fan, hymnal, or anything around her than sit still for that period of time. Also, she was not with me during the visiting hour before the funeral. There again, she would have wanted to run around and my attention would have been on her instead of accepting the condolences of those who were before me. I did, however, take her to the funeral of her great grandpa. She was older and wanted to go. I felt deep down that she wanted to say her last respects by being present. Ultimately, if you’re children are older, my suggestion would be to give them a choice. Maybe they would like to speak or sing a song. We should not hinder them from what may help them to grieve.
Having a conversation with any child about death at any age is hard. It brings up emotions for the parent and for the child. Both of which have to be faced but maybe neither one is ready. Talking with your child and showing them your raw, uninhibited feelings can be an emotional roller coaster. It can also be very freeing.
No matter how you decide to handle death with your child, it is best not to shelter them from reality. Tackle it head on and you’ll both grow from the experience.