I want to preface by saying I am by no means an expert on this topic. The ways in which we as humans deal with death varies greatly by country, culture, religion, and even from region to region. This post is meant to serve as my own personal experiences with death through the lens of parenting and education. If it can impart some advice that makes sense for an individual reading it, then it has served a purpose. If you find yourself reading and thinking that your personal values and beliefs fall in start contrast then I ask that you respect this as one person’s viewpoint and I encourage you to continue to search the web for the information you seek.
Recently, I found myself facing the death of someone my youngest daughter cared for and respected in a very sudden and unexpected way. As a member of a team of girls who were facing the same loss, I found myself thrust into the middle of a dialogue that provided me tremendous insight on the struggles that can face people when it comes to dealing with death.
In many ways, I find my personal experiences with death and dying a blessing and a curse. Coming from a large family with an even larger circle of friends that spans multiple generations, death and dying are an inevitable part of life. Over the years, my family has helped me to navigate the complicated emotions and feelings that can surface during loss and in many ways has helped me to have a deeper understanding of the importance of facing the topic with courage and conviction instead of shying away from it.
I have become acutely aware that my approach to loss may seem cold and insensitive to others. It can at times be matter-of-fact and one that puts the business of death and dying above the grief. It almost seemed fitting that my cousins turned to me to deliver eulogies for both my grandfathers because in their hearts they knew I would throw up my walls and somehow be okay. I would argue it is my defense mechanism as grieving is something I would much prefer to do in solitude. I much rather be a means of support for others then cry publicly. But that is my approach and I appreciate that each person is unique in their response.
Needless to say, when faced with the challenge of dealing with death and children a myriad of challenges presents itself including;
- How do you tell them the person has died? What do you say?
- How do you explain that a person is dying? How do you explain that they will not get better?
- How do you tackle the cultural rituals? Wakes? Burials? Funerals? Cremation?
- What do you say when children ask questions about their own mortality? What is too much? What is too little?
- How do you explain death under specific circumstances? Suicide? Accidents? Natural disasters? Terror?
- What does grieving look like? What is normal? What isn’t?
The list is seemingly endless and no two deaths are the same lending itself to countless ways in which we may have to help children understand something that as adults, we sometimes struggle to understand.
Of course, I would imagine most people would say that in dealing with death their ideal would be to face the situation with someone who lived a long and healthy life and died peacefully while sleeping. In those beautiful moments, the celebration of a life fully realized. But all too often that is not what we are faced with.
Which brings me back to the situation that I most recently faced with the passing of a life that was way too short and way too sudden. The overwhelming sense of loss, confusion, grief, anger, and sadness was all too real and I found myself challenged with answering the questions of an 8-year-old who was sad and confused but not in the ways at which I expected. It was her handling of the situation that inspired me to share what I learned about children and death.
Death and dying is part of life
For my children, death is not a new concept. They have experienced death before. From accidents to sickness, to the loss of their terminally ill baby cousin, death has been a real part of their growing up. So when people asked me how my daughter was doing I most often responded with, “unfortunately, death is not new to her.” I do believe that, for the most part, when dealing with children we do our best to protect them from the world. But death is part of life. It is arguably the only certainty in life. So while no one wants to experience loss, is it really unfortunate that my children have an understanding of death?
Death is not always the challenge
As my 8-year-old started to grapple with her most recent loss, I did a lot of watching and listening. What I noticed was not so much how the loss was personally affecting her, but rather how it was affecting the adults around her and how that, in turn, was affecting her. She had tremendous concern for others and their loss. She seemed to have a keen understanding of how the death affected others. Granted this could be because of her age, but in watching her I learned that it is important that we as adults be aware of our emotions around children dealing with death.
In my instance, the loss was not a family member, so my daughter was able to see and feel the loss but was aware that the family’s sense of loss was greater. What confused her was those whose emotion was more intense than those of the family. She struggled to understand why a family member was not crying but someone not related was inconsolable.
I think it is important that we as adults do not exaggerate or understate our own emotions. This does not mean to shield them or hide them. Rather, I learned that children watch and react based on what they are seeing and feeling. They need the social cues and we should give it to them but in a way that mimics life when death is not at the forefront.
Children are different
My daughters handle death very differently. I did not realize the depth and breadth of these differences until this past week. Nor did I understand that difference has always been there. With my older daughter, a loss is something she prefers to work through alone. She does not find the customs and rituals of death something she wants to participate in. This does not mean she won’t (when her teacher’s father passed away she was one of the only students to attend the wake). But she does not find comfort in customs or rituals. For her death is a finality that can not be changed and the best way to handle it is to move forward.
In contrast, my other daughter finds comfort in the grieving process. She seeks people and wants to be around them. She looks for their support and guidance. She has, at times, insisted on attending the wake so she could see the person who passed. For her, she needed to see that their body looked the way she remembered. The idea of having that memory be the lasting one is not an issue for her. She does not hold on to that moment, rather she holds on to the peace she finds in the life they lived. She only speaks of the memories in which she cherishes, not the ones around death and dying.
Understanding the differences in children and how their needs in dealing with death and dying may differ greatly from your own is important in helping them. Listening to them, asking questions and probing for answers. We do not always give children enough credit when credit is due. More often than not, I do believe that children know what they need.
Respect their wishes
When my 8-year-old told me somewhat abruptly that she did not want to attend the wake for the person in her life that just passed, I was confused and didn’t really believe her. She had been so insistent on going and I had spent so much time explaining and defending to others that the choice to attend was hers. I wasn’t mad she changed her mind, I was more concerned that her decision was the best one for her. After talking to her about it, I realized that the things we had done prior to the wake to remember the person was the closure she needed. In this instance, she felt as if she had spent the previous few days grieving and while society deemed the grieving time to be during the wake, she had, at least for the moment, reconciled her loss.
On the other end of the spectrum, it is just as important to respect when a child changes their mind. I had made lots of changes to my week to ensure that I would be able to get my daughter to everything she expressed she wanted to attend. So, when she decided, 5 minutes before we were going to leave, she no longer wanted to attend the wake, I was a bit taken back. My initial reaction was confusion as I personally had already made up my mind that we were going. However, in talking to her, I realized that she had in her own way grieved for her loss earlier in the week and while not being disrespectful, did not want to go through all those emotions again. It took a while to work through the conversation to ensure that she was making the best decision for her but it was a learning experience for me to understand how she felt.
Talking to others
Sometimes, the best thing we can do as adults is to talk to others who are removed from the situation. I was surprised at the spectrum of responses from adults who were in the middle of dealing with loss that I began to second guess my decisions with my daughter. By turning to people who were otherwise unaffected and talking things out I found the advice to be much more objective rather than subjective.
Seeking expert advice
By no means am I am expert on this topic. When others were looking for advice to help their children through the grieving process my advice to them was to reach out to the school social worker. Even I did the same as I felt a social worker would have far more experience dealing with this then I did.
If a social worker is not available there are plenty of resources on the web. While I do not believe that the internet is a substitute for professional resources around you, the following articles did stand out to me as examples of some of the advice for helping children work through the grieving process.
If a book is better suited to meet your needs you will find that the list of titles around this topic is endless. I personally have had a lot of success with Dragonflies and Water bugs by Dorothy Stickney. What’s your Grief has a list by age of other resources for talking to children about death. Their list is quite comprehensive but by no means exhaustive.
Whether we want to accept that about death and dying neither here nor there. Death is and will continue to be something that happens in our lives. Helping children work through it in a way that makes them feel as safe and comfortable as possible is what is really important when children experience loss. No matter what direction we take when dealing with death, I firmly believe that this teachable moment is not one to be ignored or brushed over. We must help our children try to understand this confusing but very real part of life.