My heart is aching as I draft this post. My beloved Grandma passed away peacefully last night on Friday the 13th…How I wish we lived in a world where we won’t have to bear the the pain of losing a loved one! There was great outpouring of grief and among those present were primary school-going grandchildren like Dana and my nephew Caleb. Death is one of the hardest subjects to broach with children, especially when we are struggling to deal with our own deep sorrows. But death is also an inescapable part of life, and as adults, we ought to help our kids understand and manage their grief in the best ways possible. Ever since Grandma came down with a stroke last month, we have been trying to brace ourselves for the inevitable and prepare Dana for what is to come. But it’s said easier than done. I am mindful that our behavior and reactions during this time of bereavement will impact all the children in the family psychologically…Even though they may be young, their emotions, too, must be acknowledged…As we grief, we do not want the kids to go away with an unhealthy fear or stigma of death…
Children are aware of death from early on. They hear about it in fairy tales, see it on TV, and encounter dead bugs, insects, birds in the parks. Some children may have already experienced the death of a pet or a family member. Despite this, there are still aspects of death that kids still can’t understand. Kids react to death in a variety of ways. Often they will struggle to understand why the adults around them are all so sad, and the world may suddenly seem ominous to them in a way that it hadn’t before.
Kids process grief in bite-sized chunks, not all at once. They may not show any reaction to the death at all, or their responses may be intermittent, mixed in with their usual cheerfulness and play. This is normal. Some may delay grieving until they feel it’s safe to let those feelings out — a process that could take months or even years, particularly if they’ve lost a parent, a sibling or someone very dear.
They can’t really understand what causes death, and they may think of it as something that’s temporary and reversible. They can’t comprehend that being dead means that the body no longer functions. They may believe that the deceased still eat, sleep, and do normal things — except that they do them up in the sky or down in the ground.
They can’t grasp that death is permanent, inevitable, and happens to everyone”. ~ Michael Towne, child-life specialist who works with grieving families at the University of California-San Francisco Medical Center.
How to explain death to young children (Source: Baby Center)
Don’t dodge their questions. It’s normal for kids to be curious about death. Answer their questions about death, factually. If you are not in the emotional state to do so, get the help of another adult close to the child to do it.
Give brief, simple answers. Young children can’t handle too much information at once. It’s most helpful to explain death in terms of physical functions that have ceased, rather than launching into a complicated theological discussion. We told Dana that “Grandma died because her body functions (like the heart, the kidney, the brain etc) has stopped working. She can’t walk or run, or eat or sleep or see anymore, and she is not in pain anymore.”
Express your own emotions. Grieving is an important part of healing, for both children and adults. Don’t frighten your children with excessive grief, but don’t make the subject off-limits either. When the undertaker came to collect Grandma’s body last night, it was a very emotional experience. If your children have to witness this, it’s best to assign an adult to hold their hands and guide them through the process closely.
Explain that grownups need to cry sometimes, too, and that you feel sad because you miss Grandma. Your kids are keenly aware of changes in your mood, and they’ll be even more worried if they sense that something is wrong but that you’re trying to hide it. We kept assuring the kids that it’s ok to cry, and the adults are crying because we love Grandma and we miss her…
Avoid euphemisms. Common adult phrases for death — “resting in peace,” “in eternal sleep” — are confusing for children, so don’t say that Grandma is “sleeping” or “has gone away.” Your kids may worry that going to bed at night means they’ll die, too, or that if you leave for the office, you won’t come back. Dana and Caleb were crying bitterly last night and some well-meaning relatives started to tell them that Grandma is asleep, don’t cry…I found an appropriate time to go to the kids in private and explain that Grandma is not ‘sleeping’. Rather, she is no longer alive (because the body functions have stopped working) but there’s nothing to fear as Grandma’s soul has ascended to Heaven.
State the reasons for the death as simply as possible: “Grandma was very old and her body couldn’t work anymore.” If Grandma was sick before she died, be sure to reassure the children that if they get sick from a cold or flu, it doesn’t mean they’ll die. Explain that there are different ways people get sick, and that we recover from minor illnesses like the ones your children usually have.
Reassure your children of your faith in simple terms. Say: “We’re so sad that Grandma isn’t here with us and we’ll miss her very much, but we know that she’s with God now.”
Be prepared for a variety of reactions. Children not only feel sorrow over the death of a loved one, they may also feel guilt or anger. Don’t be surprised if they express anger toward the doctors and nurses, or even the deceased. Reassure them that nothing they said or did caused the death. Ask the children what they feel, and how the passing has affected him or her emotionally. Get them to express their feelings by drawing pictures or writing journals. Children should be encouraged to express their feelings as it will help them deal with such strong emotions better when they are older. On the way home, Daddy asked Dana how she felt…she was very quiet throughout…Children need time to process what they had witnessed and come to terms with their sadness over the loss of a loved one too.
Expect the subject to come up repeatedly. Be ready to answer the same questions from your children over and over again, since understanding the permanence of death is a struggle for them. Don’t worry that you didn’t explain the death adequately the first time — your child’s ongoing questions are normal. Just keep answering them as patiently as you can. Dana was curious as to why the undertakers have to remove Grandma’s body…I tried my best to explain to her that Grandma needs to be embalmed…(of which she started asking what is embalming and why the need to be embalmed, what is a casket etc). She was also alarmed that ‘chemicals’ will be injected into Grandma’s body during embalming and asked ‘are the chemicals harmful’? So when a loved one dies, do set aside some one on one time to help the kids cope with these ‘mysteries’.
Memorialize the deceased. Children need concrete ways to mourn the death of a loved one. Involve them in lighting a candle at home, sing a song, draw a picture, or take part in some other ritual observance. If your children want to attend the funeral, carefully explain beforehand what the body will look like, what a coffin is, how other people may be acting, and as many other details about the event as possible. My Grandma’s funeral wake will be held from today till next Tuesday before her cremation. I hope to find opportunities for the children in our family to place a favourite thing of theirs for their beloved Great-Grandma with the cortege.
It also helps to talk about the good relationship they shared with the deceased: “Remember when you and Grandma went to Chinatown? She had so much fun with you and she loves you dearly…”
The sooner your children’s routines get back to normal, the easier it will be for them. They need to get to bed on time, get up on time, eat meals on time, and, if they are in school, go back to the friends and fun they have there.
Don’t put up a front. If you’re deeply bereaved by a family member’s death, do your best to guide your children through the difficult times, but don’t force yourself to put up a front or expect yourself to act cool and collected. It’s all right to cry in front of your children. They will learn that it’s a natural way of coping with grief.
Ask for help from friends and relatives, and remember that the more you help yourself cope, the better you’ll be able to help your children cope, both now and later.
Using books to do the explaining
Here are some titles available from our National Library which touch on death, loss and grief. These topical children’s books open up opportunities for conversing with our children about their feelings in a non-intimidating, non-judgmental manner.
So long, farewell my dearest Ah Ma….rest in peace and one day, we’ll be reunited in Heaven…