As much as it’s not something you may want to think about it, it’s a part of life—death. For my husband and I, this was not an easy thing to deal with, particularly I think because it came much earlier in our children’s lives than either of us was ready for. In addition, we are from two families that handle death very differently.
When my son was three years old, his grandfather who he was very close with passed away. I want to say it was unexpected, but it wasn’t really. We knew my father-in-law was sick, we just never realized how sick he was until he was facing his last few days. When I did realize that my father-in-laws days were becoming fewer and fewer, I began to prepare my son. (My daughter had just turned a year old and I didn’t think she would understand). I repeatedly told my son that grandpa was very sick. My son, being three years old would ask if it was something he could catch. I reassured him that what his grandfather had was not contagious.
When my father-in-law passes, I wasn’t really sure how to handle it with my son. I scoured the internet for answers. I knew that if I told him grandpa died, there would be a slew of questions, mostly wondering why. Some of what I read left me feeling disillusioned–things like “don’t associate death with being sick,” and “don’t associate death with being old.” The idea was that these things may make your child fear illness or worry that other “old” people may die. While I’ll agree this sounds good on the surface, I also think it’s not great advice, because it takes away the ability of being able to prepare your child for death.
One of the most helpful things I read lead me down a more spiritual path. While I’m not a “Church on Sunday” type of person, I do believe in God, and I do believe in an afterlife. Until I had children, and had to explain death to them, I didn’t realize how important it was for me to have these beliefs. I don’t want to believe that this world is all there is, and I want my children to always believe there’s something more to look forward to– whether it be on this Earth or in Heaven (as is my belief). When my son asked the question “Why did Grandpa die?,” we told him that his job on Earth was done and that God needed his help in Heaven. Not only did this answer offer my son comfort, but I think it gave my husband and me comfort, as well.
My son also wanted to know if he would be able to talk to his Grandpa or see him anymore. I told him that he would only be able to see his grandfather in pictures and in dreams. I also informed him that he can still talk to Grandpa, he just might not hear him answering. We printed out two copies of a picture of my son with his Grandpa and put each one in a frame. One we gave to my son and the other we placed in the casket with my father-in-law. I told my son that whenever he misses Grandpa or wants to talk to him, he should take that picture and talk to it, and Grandpa will hear him. Another thing I told my son is that he can still see grandpa in his dreams when he’s sleeping at night. And, I did not just tell him this–I believe this. As a college student when my own grandmother died, I can vividly recall having many dreams where my grandmother was present. Most vividly, I remember her exit from my dreams. I remember her telling me “I have to leave now.” It was several years before my grandmother ever visited me in a dream again.
My son used to have dreams about my father-in-law frequently, but recently there have been weeks and weeks without a visit. This past summer, my husband became ill and ended up in the hospital for a couple nights. I told my son that his dad was away for work because I saw no reason to make him worry (and he is a worrier). The next morning my son told me, “Grandpa came for a little while last night just to check on me. He said he had to leave to go be with daddy though. He said daddy needed him right now.” It’s stories like this that will have me holding on to my spiritual side, and taking great comfort in it.
Regardless of your beliefs, the NIH has a great section on their website offering good sound advice for helping your child cope with the death of a loved one. The article offers eight important pieces of advice from talking openly about death in advance and creating legacy projects to determining when your child might actually need to see a psychologist or other professional because they just aren’t handling the news in a healthy manner.
The next thing you may want to think about when teaching your children about death is whether to bring him to the services that accompany that person’s passing. In the end, when my father-in-law died, my husband won out and my son did not attend the Wake or the Funeral. To this day, my son asks why he couldn’t go. Fast-forward to the present, and we just recently had to bury my husband’s grandmother. This time, we opted to bring both of our children to the Wake on one of the afternoons. It was an extremely positive learning experience. I was able to explain the rituals and the idea of taking the opportunity to say good-bye to the person who died. My son was in pure amazement, and his innocence as he repeatedly visited my grandmother-in-laws body as it lay in the casket caught the eyes of so many. His curiosity and love for his great grandmother brought smiles to otherwise grieving faces.
Looking back, I think the most important thing you can do is be honest with your children when it comes to death. Teach them what you believe. Remind them that part of life is eventually dying. Remind them that both you and your children have many years ahead of you to grow and learn on this Earth.