Dealing with Death

- Joellen Monson

Some years ago at an old high school friend's birthday party someone declared, "We're getting to the age where our parents are getting to THAT age...". She was subtly referring to the age related illnesses, relapses and inevitably death of our parents. As adults, we can remember the importance of the author Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's book "On Death and Dying" which details the five Stages of Grieving: 1) Denial 2) Anger 3) Bargaining 4) Depression and finally 5) Acceptance. Adults can call on friends and relatives for support to help through to shock, sadness and anxiety. But what about our children? How do we help them deal with this inevitable life transition?

Ideally, we would have prepared them in some way before the actual event. Some psychologist recommend teaching children about death at a very young age. Children are curious about the world around them, so through casual and repeated use of examples in nature, we can begin this important introduction. By simply telling a child, "That bee is dead. Dead means it no longer moves, it doesn't think or breath any more". When gently introducing the actual concept of death - what is means in very basic and straightforward terms - the child can learn about dying as a natural cycle of life. They are very concrete thinkers until well into their pre-adolescent years, so use simple terms which are easy to understand. Remember to avoid using expressions such as, "They just went to sleep...", this can make the child fearful of falling asleep themselves. This lays some foundation of a factual understanding of the process of death before their is an emotional connection. When a family pet dies, children will feel the pain of loss and can better cope with the passing if they are able to share their feelings and have things explained to them.

For most children, the greatest possibility of someone they know dying is likely to be a grandparent. If a family member dies unexpectedly, the grief process can become even more complicated and potentially traumatic for everyone. This is especially true if your child has no concept of death. Without a basic knowledge of what's happening or why, they can become more fearful through witnessing their parents dealing with their feelings of loss. This combines with their own confusion over why they can no longer see their grandma or grandpa.

Books are an excellent bridge to sharing information. The following is a listing of some books  which deal with loss through a variety of means and wide range of ages:

  • Sharon Greenlee “When Someone Dies”, a watercolor picture book which discusses the confusion and hurt that can result from the death of a loved one.
  • Theresa Huntley “Helping children Grieve: When someone they love dies”, a practical range of information.
  • One that is recommended for 4-8 year olds is Jo Carson “You Hold Me and I’ll Hold You”, a great aunt dies and the child finds comfort in being held and in holding.
  • A little more “spiritual” is “Naomi Judd’s Guardian Angels”, a girl looks at pictures of great grandparents and knows angels are watching over.
  • Marlika Doray, “One More Wednesday” this story tells about a little bunny and grandma who do special things together, when she dies the child talks about it with mom and they remember the good times.

We recommend that whichever you choose, if a family member has already passed away, the book should involve a far removed relative (we don’t want the child to begin worrying about who might be next). We're sure you'll find these helpful and can be accessed through Recommended Books section.

Some final points, be aware that your children will not necessarily grieve in the same way as you as an adult will. Having some familiar adult who is not experiencing the loss as intensely as you available to answer the child's questions can often be very useful. Provide ample opportunities for them to talk about how they might be feeling. Especially for younger children, if they seem to "take it pretty well", don't worry. Often their lack of deep understanding prevents them from fully comprehending the long term implications of the loss of a beloved family member. Long after the actually death, they may continue to ask why they can't see grandma or grandpa. Be patient and gently repetitive.

Know that it is important for you to let them know you are sad and that it is OK for you to feel that way. It is not their job to make you feel better but receiving a comforting hug can always be welcomed. Loosing a loved one is never easy no matter how much you might be prepared ahead of time. Once the person is actually gone, the feelings can be surprisingly overwhelming. Accept all the love and support of those around you and know, it is only with time, that "this too will pass."