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Parents Talk: How Do I Talk to my Kids About Death and Dying?

In this week's Parents Talk, we ask for your help in trying to explain the death of a loved one to a child.

It was a rough week at our house last week. 

The night before I was to leave on one of the first real vacations away from my kids, I found out that my grandfather - my children's great-grandfather - was dying.

Call me an optimist but everything in my head said he would make it through the next week until I could make to his bedside in Wisconsin. Sadly, he passed away last Friday.

After a lot of thought, I decided to go the funeral alone. I wasn't sure it would be appropriate to bring the kids along and besides, I didn't want their last memory of their grandpa to be one of him in a box, devoid that bright smile and spark that was so uniquely his.

When my 5 year-old asked me where I was headed on Tuesday, I was honest and told her I was attending a funeral. I explained that a funeral was a time for people to share their thoughts and memories about someone who had died. My explanation seemed to suffice and she didn't ask who the funeral was for.

My question is, now that I've explained the funeral, how do I explain that it was for grandpa? This is really the first person in the family my children might remember. His illness was brief and I'd prefer it if my kids would remember him the way he was the last time we saw them. 

Please leave your suggestions in the comments box below.

Sarah Lacey April 30, 2012 at 02:50 PM
First of all, sorry about the loss of your grandpa. Death and dying forces us to confront that uncomfortable truth: someday that will be me. Also, someday, my kids are going to have to experience the pain that I am feeling now when I leave them. I don't think there is a catch-all answer here. For our family, we do our best to make death and dying seem as natural a part of life as birth. We try not to make it sound scary, or something we shouldn't talk about. We have taken our children to funerals and been to see people who are ill. Most recently, we discussed the impending death of a cancer-stricken relative while she was ill. It made it easier for them to ask questions about what was happening, and how what she had would not go away, and that yes, she would die. When the funeral happened, they really understood, and were not scared. I think taking some of the fear away makes it easier, even though sometimes it feels like NOT exposing them to it makes it easier for them, and for us. I just find that I am as open to taking them to the hospital to see a new baby as I am taking them to a retirement home or hospice. It is important for them to see all aspects of life, respect people at all stages of life, even the ones that make us sad. This is not done in a cavalier manner, just as another part of reality. Just another great way to remind them (and we do in these situations) of how we must be kind to, love, and appreciate each other while we are here.
Emily C April 30, 2012 at 03:24 PM
It sounds like there are two things you'll explain here - there's the death part, which is an interesting topic for kids and one they struggle to understand, that you've already started to discuss. And then there's the loss of a particular person, and that's where you can talk about memories, photos, and how remembering a loved one can be comforting even though the person is gone. Encourage lots of talking about grandpa, asking questions, and sharing stories. I think it's always helpful to remind everyone that it's ok to remember happy times as well as sad while you're grieving. Also, one thing I read that I have found to be very true is that children process grief/loss in chunks. Kids may ask a few questions right away, then carry on. Then days or weeks later, ask another few questions, and on and on. With my son, it's like he takes in all the information he can handle and then he moves on, thinks about it some more later, and comes up with a new set of questions. It's an interesting process, really, and the challenge for adults is to be sensitive to that "overload" stage and not give more information than the kids are ready for. Good luck to you, and I'm sorry for your loss.
Anne Carothers-Kay April 30, 2012 at 05:25 PM
Jody, this is a tough one: I think young children are very resiliant and unless it was a parent or sibling who died, they will accept the information with curiosity, but death doesn't hold a lot of pain for them at this age. When my son was about three, his 15-year-old cousin died in a car accident. We told him that David died and that we were sad because that meant we wouldn't get to see him anymore. I remember it was night time and we took him out on the porch and showed him the starry sky and said that David was in heaven. I think I said that I didn't really know where heaven was, but I like to think it was up in the sky with the stars. He was okay with that and didn't really ask too many questions. I don't believe we took him to the funeral. I think that can be more troubling to them at that age. Whatever you say, it will probably be harder for you than your kids.

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