Last month my beautiful grandmother passed away.
At the age of 92, she had a long and beautiful life, not exempt from hardships and heartache, but mostly full of beauty and joy. At her funeral her grandchildren all had their children present, (ten from ages 9 months to 17 years.) The funeral was a beautiful way to celebrate her life, and help us mourn her loss. Her illness and passing brought up many of those hard questions that kids ask about death.
Talking to kids about death is never easy, but not as hard as we (as adults) make it out to be. Children are always smarter and stronger than we give them credit for. And let's face it- part of being alive is knowing that we must all die one day.
When we heard how ill she was, my youngest son asked me "Mommy, do you think she will die?" I had to be honest and tell him " I really don't know, baby, she is very sick and fragile." My twelve year old son, who was not in on the conversation, only knew that she was ill, and so when we heard that she had passed away he took the news much harder than his younger brother.
My own father passed away a week before I turned seven. I remember vividly him explaining his illness to me and telling me he wouldn't be here much longer. I was sad but also relieved that he had told me the truth. I still remember feeling grateful for that. Also, I remember thinking that the adults that tip-toed around him and the topic were all crazy. I remember thinking, "Why don't they just talk to him (and me) like they normally do? He's dying but not dead yet." The honesty my parents showed me as a child helped me in his passing. I mourned but was not surprised or devastated at the funeral like my cousins who had only been told that he was sick.
So how do you talk to kids about death?
- Be honest. (Use age appropriate measures but don't make up things to pad the situation. Saying "Grandma is asleep" is not going to help.)
- Answer the questions as they come. (Don't give out so much info your kids are overwhelmed. Answer their specific questions as they ask them.)
- Show them how you deal with pain and let them express theirs. (Cry, write down your feelings, pray, talk, cry)
- Make teachable moments. (Give honest answers for illnesses or aging etc. Use your personal beliefs on what happens after we die, the soul, God, etc. as they come along.) Read some books about death and dying together to help in understanding.
- Love and cherish them.
I was so glad we took our four children to their great-grandma's funeral. I believe it helped them to see her life celebrated and to let them mourn her collectively. Knowing that they weren't alone in their sorrow helps them begin to ease the pain.
Some great books to read together:
- The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
- The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story of Life for All Ages by Leo Buscaglia
- Nana Upstairs, Nana Downstairs by Tomie de Paola
- I Miss You by Pat Thomas
- Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children by Bryan Mellonie
- What's Heaven? by Maria Shriver
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