As you know from my last post, a dear friend of mine is dying. She was an incredible light in this world and will be missed – so very much. She and her dear husband have two young children, under the age of 8. Many people have asked how to talk & be with them as well as how to explain her death to their own children. So, this blog post is dedicated to my friend and her family.
Developmental Understanding & What Helps
Two Years to Five Years
Preschool children often see death as reversible, temporary, and impersonal. They believe in magical causes. They have a great deal of curiosity and often ask lots of questions. Regression, aggression and clinging behaviors are common common after a death. They worry who will care for them.
What Helps: As hard as this is, remind them that their mom will not return. Reassure them that they are not to blame. Give realistic information and answer questions. Involve in “farewell” ceremonies (e.g., writing a letter to their mom or saying goodbye). Encourage questions and expression of feelings. Keep the home environment stable and structured. Notify the school of what is occurring.
Five Years to Nine Years
Between the ages of 5 and 9, most children begin to realize that death is permanent and that all living things die, but they still do not see death as something that can happen to them. They believe that death is escapable through ingenuity and effort. They tend to personify death as ghosts or “boogeyman.” They may see death as punishment and even (GULP) feel responsible, though they may not articulate it. It is imperative to reassure them (over and over) that they were not responsible for the death.
What Helps: Give clear and realistic information. Include the child in funeral ceremonies, if they choose. Give permission to express feelings and provide opportunities to do so. Reduce the potential for guilt by providing factual information. Maintain structured schedule, individual and family activities. Notify the school of what is occurring. Provide gentle confirmation and reassurance that they will be cared for.
Explaining death to children between the ages of 3 and 8 involves brief and simple explanations. It is best to explain it in terms of the absence of familiar life functions. For example: When people die, they do not breathe, eat, talk, think, or feel anymore. When flowers die, they do not grow or bloom anymore. When dogs die, they do not run or bark anymore.
Use the correct language – “Mommy has died” or “Mommy is dead.” Never ever use euphemisms such as “Mommy has gone to sleep” or “Mommy has gone away” or even “She has passed.” The use of euphemisms can cause an immense amount of confusion and irrational fears about sleeping, resting or people leaving.
A child may ask questions immediately or may respond with thoughtful silence and come back at a later time to ask more questions. Each question deserves a simple and relevant answer. Because children can confuse what they hear, it is critical to assess whether children have understood what has been said. Simply ask them to repeat what they have heard.
Children learn through repetition and may need to hear the same information multiple times. Sometimes it is not always easy to hear what the child is really asking. Sometimes it may be necessary to respond to a question with a question in order to fully understand the child’s concerns.
Pre-Adolescent through Teens
From about 9 or 10 through Adolescence, children begin to comprehend fully that death is irreversible, that all living things die, and that they too will die one day. During this period, philosophical views of life and death develop. Teenagers often become intrigued with seeking the meaning of life. Some react to their fear of death by taking unnecessary risks with their lives. In confronting death, they are trying to overcome their fears by confirming an artificial control over mortality. They often have a strong emotional reaction and may regress, even revert to fantasy. They may intellectualize the death and possibly develop a pre-morbid occupation.
What Helps: Provide clear, unambiguous information. Provide opportunities to express self and feelings. Encourage outside relationships with mentors. Provide tangible means to remember their loved one. Encourage self-expression, both verbal and non-verbal. Dispel fears about physical concerns. Educate about maturation. Provide outlets for energy and strong feelings (e.g., recreation, sports). They need mentoring and direction.
Because funerals serve a valuable function of helping the living acknowledge, accept and cope with the death of a loved one, children who are old enough not only can but should be included in funeral arrangements. (You KNOW I don’t use the “S” word very often!)
What is “old enough,” you ask? It really depends on the child. To give you some perspective, though, I have been with children as young as two at funerals.
Ideally, children are engaged in the service. Even very young children can choose the kind of flowers they would like to give and may bring the flowers with them. Older children can do readings or assist with music selections. Many children write a letter, draw a picture, or choose a keepsake to put into the casket (as culturally appropriate).
It is important to prepare children for what they will encounter at each step of the funeral/memorial service. Explain what the funeral home, church, and/or cemetery look like. Explain and name significant elements such as casket, hearse, or grave. Include an explanation of how people may behave and help children to understand that the tears of the adults around them are okay and nothing to be afraid of. When they know what to expect, children will not be overwhelmed.
Choose a close friend, family member, or babysitter to accompany the children throughout the wake and funeral. This takes the pressure off of the surviving parent. This person serves as a child’s advocate and ensures that children are well cared for. The person acting as the child’s advocate will also answer their questions and be aware of the child’s emotional state when parents are busy with the extraordinary demands of the day. This person needs to be rock solid and focused on their sole responsibility of getting the child/children through the service(s).
Grief often looks very different in children than it does in adults. While some children may be tearful and appear sad, many more tend to play and socialize their way through the farewell ritual. Children are only able to hold a certain amount of emotional pain. They then need to let it out by playing. Many children have called the wake, “That big party we had for Mommy.”
The Silver Lining of including children at the funeral is that they really connect with the gathering aspect of these events and they can lead the way when it comes to celebrating a life. They often recount the wonderful things said about the person who has died and talk about all the people who came to the funeral. Children will remember having been part of the important goodbye and are affirmed by participating in it. With thoughtful preparation, we can safely and meaningfully include children in funeral rituals. There may be no greater opportunity to share with them what it means to be family.
The following poem so aptly describes the feelings and needs of grief stricken families.