Our family is facing a new parenting challenge – how to talk with our kids about the death of a loved one. This isn’t an uncommon parenting issue, rather just one we haven’t dealt with directly before now.
In the last few months my 88-year-old grandmother’s health has declined precipitously. In the process, my kids have learned a lot about Alzheimer’s, care taking, hospice, and the dying process.
Our general parenting philosophy is based in honesty, compassion and taking cues from our kids. And like most sensitive topics, we have turned to others and to experts to figure out how to talk with our kids about death. We’ve also done a lot of reading lately. I’m certain we haven’t gotten everything right, but so far this is what’s working for our family:
Take advantage of unemotional opportunities to talk about death.
Fortunately, we’ve been doing this since the boys were little and it has looked different at different ages. Mainly we’ve been answering questions that the boys have:
- Why did the leaf fall off the tree?
- Did you do something to make that plant die?
- What happens to the dead bug once it goes in the trash?
- What happens to my lizard after we bury it?
- Will I see our dog again in heaven?
So that last question was fairly emotional for Davis and Patrick. By the time they lost their dog, they already knew about the biological processes of death. They didn’t know all the specifics, but they understood that life had ceased, their dog wasn’t coming back to them and their dog’s remains would return to the earth and decompose. They didn’t have to worry about learning those things or go through the doubt about death being final. They had learned those things earlier in unemotional ways, leaving them more capacity to deal with the emotions of losing their dog.
Be developmentally appropriate.
Through my reading, I’ve learned that there are 4 main concepts kids need to learn about death:
- Death is permanent.
- In death, all biologic functioning stops.
- Everything and everyone dies.
- What causes death?
What kids understand about each, should dictate how you approach death. My kids seem to understand all four of these concepts, but are still mainly occupied with concrete notions of death. They understand why Granny is dying and have not been scared that Rob and I shall die in the near future.
The boys have asked some more abstract questions like – what will happen to her, will she go to heaven, will they see her in heaven someday, does heaven really exist and what is it like? The more existential questions about the meaning of life and having purpose in the life you lead are just beyond their current concerns, so we haven’t broached these.
When we saw my grandmother at Christmas last year, it was clear that her dementia was progressing and her body was beginning to fail her. There was no hiding that from the boys. After we left and went back home, it would have been easy to not mention her progressively worsening health. Her death was happening at a distance and the boys didn’t have to face it daily.
But hiding her failing health and deteriorating mental condition would do nothing to prepare Davis and Patrick for her death. They have loved their great-grandmother fiercely for their entire lives and letting her death come as a surprise would be much harder on them. I’m grateful we have had a chance to prepare them.
Being honest doesn’t mean sharing all the painful details. Instead, for our family it has meant a steady, but slow stream of information that help the boys understand that death is becoming closer. It has meant telling them that she is having trouble talking or remembering people, that she can no longer feed herself or get out of bed much. It has meant explaining what hospice care is and why she is using it.
These have been sad conversations, but not scary ones. We’ve kept them relatively short, but let them ask questions, as they need. Their questions have been good guides for us – helping us pace information based on their needs.
Respect their wishes.
I planned a trip to visit my Granny shortly after she entered hospice care. At this point she barely recognized me on the phone. The trip was more about my need to see her, than her need to see me. We asked the boys if they wanted to join me on the trip. They were both very clear: Davis felt the need to see his Granny; Patrick preferred to not have the memory of her being disoriented, confused and frail.
I don’t know if we made the right decision or not, but we chose to respect their wishes. Davis accompanied me on the trip and Patrick stayed home.
Similarly, Davis wanted more information and wanted to prepare himself. Patrick requested that we only give him sporadic updates. They both seem to be processing her coming death in a healthy way, but their approach is very different. We are doing our best to honor their wishes and let them grieve at their own pace.
Model faithful & compassionate caregiving.
In talking with my boys about what would happen after Granny entered hospice care, we talked about mechanics of hospice care and what may happen to her mind and body over the following weeks and months. That perfunctory conversation took a beautiful turn when they asked what they could do for her and how they could care for their Granny.
We talked about being present, even if she didn’t realize we were with her (in person or on the phone). We talked about how their Mimi stopped working a few years ago, so she could spend time with her mother and care for her.
Like I mentioned earlier, Davis joined me for a quick trip to see their Granny. He was patient and helpful. Helping her get out of bed or changing her socks or pushing her wheelchair. These were the tangible ways he showed his love for her. During the trip, he listened patiently to her incoherent conversations, not pushing her or frustrating her – simply being a calm presence in her life.
Share your religious beliefs.
Whatever your religious beliefs or non-beliefs, you likely have some feelings about what happens after death. Kids, even young kids, will have picked up on some popular notions about the after-life.
We have been open with our kids about our personal beliefs and also exposed them to some other beliefs that are commonly held. They are old enough to realize that none of us really knows what will happen after death and to begin developing their own thoughts.
Preview common emotional reactions.
For kids who have never experienced the death of a close friend or family member, they don’t always know what to expect. The feelings that can creep in may take them by surprise or be more intense than they expected.
We have tried to address this by helping our boys know that feelings of sadness or worry are perfectly normal. That they may cry or see others crying. We’ve also talked about how they won’t feel sad all the time and that it is perfectly normal to not feel emotions about Granny’s health all the time. They shouldn’t feel guilty about being happy, even if others around them are sad at the time.
Allow room for ongoing grief.
Grief will be on ongoing process for the foreseeable future in our family. I don’t know what it will look like or how long it will last. I do expect it to come in waves and be different for all of us.
It is important that our kids continue with their normal lives and maintain their routine, but also have room to be sad or worried and know that we’ll help them cope as needed.
We expect our kids to follow a fairly normal grieving process, but will be aware of signs that suggest they need more help than we can provide.
We certainly aren’t experts on helping kids cope with death, but so far this approach seems to be working for us. If you’ve helped your child cope with the death of a loved one, what has worked for you?
National Association of School Psychologists
The Child Mind Institute