It was inevitable that I would have to deal with death at some point as a parent.
This past week my family and I traveled to celebrate the life of my grandmother, with whom I had an especially close relationship as a child. While I was happy that she finally found rest and respite from the terrible disease that had taken a heavy toll in the last several years of her life, the loss was especially hard for me.
When I heard the news and began making plans to travel to the funeral, I especially worried about how to explain what was happening to my five and almost three year-old. Although my boys had not had the opportunity to get to know my grandmother, this was the first death in our family we had experienced since their births.
Typical of their developmental stages, my youngest son just accepted my simple explanation I gave them, drawn from our faith, and merrily announced whenever anyone spoke of her passing, "Grandma went to Jesus!"
My five year old, however, was more attuned to my emotions. He tried to comfort me when I was overcome by moments of sadness and grief. It was pretty arresting when in one sad moment he came and quietly sat next to me, and said, "It's OK, mom. Sometimes life just doesn't feel fair. I know you are sad Grandma died."
That will rank as one of many surreal parenting moments to come, I'm sure.
He also had questions. My son, who has watched every Eyewitness kids' documentary—some multiple times—has a very analytical mind. He wanted to puzzle this death thing out. I could tell he also was thinking about his grandparents, whom he adores.
Caught in your own feelings, it can be daunting to know how to help your children process their own.
I needed help. I reached out to our local Patch Parent Council contributor, Tina DeMattia, who is a marriage and family therapist in Danville, and mom to two boys of her own. I aksed her for her tips on how to handle the topic of death with children.
Demattia says it's important to spend quiet time together with your children when discussing a death, helping them to feel secure and loved. She counsels establishing that security by reading with them, drawing, and playing games to give them ways to talk to you about what they are feeling, and to answer any questions that they may have.
Answering questions honestly is especially important, DeMattia says. If you are currently experiencing a death of a loved one and feeling unsure about how to talk to your children about it, she offers a few Dos and Don'ts to help you through the conversation:
1. DO tell the children immediately after a death has occurred; preferably by someone close to them in familiar surroundings.
2. DO include the children in conversations about the illness and death (before and after). Be honest and simple in explanations, keeping in mind their age and developmental stage.
3. DO be honest with your own feelings. Model appropriate behavior. It helps the children to understand that all feelings are OK.
1. DON'T try to protect them from the illness or death; imagination conjures up worse things than the truth.
2. DON'T be shocked if the child seems ambivalent or unaffected due to their developmental stage (age). They may start playing normally after being told. Attention spans are short the younger they are! Be aware how feelings can surface, i.e. acting out could signal that they are grieving.
3. DON'T underestimate the power of children's feelings and the depth of their loss. Children often have a hard time expressing their emotions. Give them opportunities to express their feelings in ways that are comfortable for them, i.e. responding to a story that addresses death, or through drawing.
After experiencing this loss, and taking my children to their first funeral, I would also add:
1. Explain what is happening and will happen, including what they might see at the funeral.
2. Make a plan for what to do with your children during the funeral or memorial gathering. Knowing your child best, make contigency plans if they become bored, restless, or overwhelmed.
3. If you are able, share your memories with your children of the person who has passed, and encourage them to share theirs. Being in the town where I happily spent so many of my summers, I was able to share great memories and stories as we visited places that were special to my grandparents and I.
Something I didn't expect was how comforting it was for me to seek out ways to explain death to my children. As I read books with my sons, and played and talked with them, I found that in helping them handle what was happening, I was helping myself to process my own grief.
Great books to help you have the conversation (secular):
1. The Fall of Freddie the Leaf, by Leo Buscaglia (for all ages)
2. Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen (all ages)
3. When Someone Dies, by Sharon Greenlee (school-age)
4. Tough Topics: Death, by Patricia J. Murphy (school-age)
5. Straight Talk about Death for Teenagers, by Earl Grollman (adolescents)
I found these helpful, from the Christian perspective:
1. What Happened When Grandma Died, by Peggy Barker
2. Someone I Love Died, by Christine Harder Tangvald
3. Grandma I'll Miss You: A Child's Stort About Death and New Life, by Kathryn Slattery
For those of Jewish faith, there is a great list here.
For those of other beliefs systems, please do share in the comments section what books or materials you have found helpful when discussing death with your children.
For those who may be also be concerned about how to handle speaking to your kids about the recent tragedy in Aurora, Colorado, you might find the tips on written in the wake of the intense media coverage of Osama Bin Laden's death helpful as well.
How do you handle talking about death with your child? Patch us your comments in the comments section below.