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Helping Children Deal with Death

Like life, death is an important part of our worlds.  It will, at one time or another, affect us all and will affect our children.  Has your family had to deal with death?  An urbanMamas reader emails:

My father-in-law passed away a couple of weeks ago and we are going to Iowa next week for the memorial service. I have 3 1/2 year old b/g twins. Has anyone had to deal with death and preschoolers? How do we explain what is going on, should we bring them to the cemetary, is there something that can make them feel apart of things?


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I don't have any suggestions for you, but I'm really sorry to hear about your family's loss :(

My mother-in-law died when Everett was 2.5, so I did a lot of reading on what/when/how to involve the children. Given that it's a grandparent, you'll obviously have to be honest about what's happening -- at that age, your children really won't understand how permanent death is, so they won't likely be as frightened as older children might (at almost five, now, we talk very openly about death, although I think Everett is still too young to understand its permanence fully).

Most of what I read indicates that you shouldn't use euphemisms like "passed on" or "went to a better place" -- simple, honest answers to questions are best, but also don't tell them more than they ask -- no use mucking up a difficult topic further.

As to whether to bring them to a cemetary, that's a decision that you'll have to make based on your children's tolerance for public events -- would you bring them to a wedding? -- and not so much on the concern of freaking them out when they see the grave stones. Most of this they won't understand until much later, so they're probably not going to have nightmares about being buried alive.

They're probably too young to bring up the topic of "everybody dies" -- I didn't start talking to Everett about that until much more recently. The concept of a parent dying can be scary, and every child has his or her own reaction, but at your twins' age they probably won't make the connection yet as long as you don't make it for them.

If it were me, I would involve them as much as possible; explain to them that the memorial service is a celebration of their grandpa's life, and how much everyone loved him. Maybe start talking about ritual and how we do things to commemorate events -- like Christmas and birthdays -- and having a special service, and putting a casket in the ground, are some of those rituals.

The best way I can think to involve them is for them to do what we all do -- talk about their most special memories of their grandpa, look at pictures of him and the twins together (if they spent time together). I think what's true for adults is also true for children -- remembering the good and wonderful things about a person is a healing way to help deal with his death.

I found some good ideas here, as well:

My father died last year a couple of weeks before my daughter turned 3. He lived in Florida so we flew out when we were told he was dying. He was in the hospital and then hospice for a few days before he died. We took her to the hospital and let her visit him (he was in a coma) and she was there (not in the room) when he actually passed away. We told her he had been very sick and died. We explained his body stopped working and he would no longer be eating, sleeping etc. Since everyone was emotional we explained that we would not be seeing Grandpa anymore so we were very sad. We explained it was ok for her to be sad and sometimes we would cry. She seemed to take it mostly in stride. She was a little more irritable and emotional but probably because we all were also.
Once we came home I made a little scrapbook of photos with just her and Grandpa and we look at it often together. As she is getting older (just over 4) she talks about it more and asks more questions about death (but lots of my friends say their children are asking about it also so I think it is an age thing, just a little more real for her) It was more difficult for me I think because she would often remind me of losing my father at times when I did not want to deal with it (i.e. telling people her grandpa is dead at odd moments) but we have worked through it the best we can. My father was creamated and did not want a service so we did not deal with that, but I would have taken her if we would have. She is part of the family and we would want her to be part of the sad and bittersweet events as well as the happy ones.
I hope this helps.....Sorry for your loss.

In a previous discussion here on death, there were some really good suggestions for books about death for children


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