Recently, one of my friends shared that her dad died when she was 6 years old. She was completely excluded from the whole process and not allowed to attend his funeral. What she remembers most clearly is that her mum cried a lot. Nothing was really explained to her, and he was not talked of again. I can’t even imagine how confusing and isolating that must have been for her. When a child loses a parent or sibling at a young age (or any family member for that matter), it is surely this kind of exclusion which can lead to an inability to process death and loss in later life.
Apart from the deaths of family dogs (I’m pretty sure we all cried a lot then bought another one), the first human ones I remember were my grandparents. They both died in their 60s, which I assumed was incredibly old, and only a few years apart. Both died suddenly and with no warning, so I assumed that was the way it went with everyone. Other deaths in my teens and early 20s were also sudden, several of them my peers. In each case, the element of shock was huge, but we wept, we attended the funerals, and we got on with our lives. While none of that is wrong, I’m aware that I didn’t get an opportunity to try and figure it out until my other grandmother died in her early 90s. Her gradual decline was obvious, and so it was not unexpected, yet it was still a shock, and I was not prepared.
Where am I going with this? Just that I think we do our kids an injustice not to talk to them openly and honestly when someone close to them is dying. The reality is, we don’t know what happens after death, but trying to “protect” them doesn’t actually serve them or help them to build some kind of resilience for the future.Even young children have more understanding of the concept when they are spoken to simply, openly and compassionately. We need to let them ask questions and be prepared to answer them. When my own two were faced with their dad’s imminent death, I was advised, “Don’t lie to them. They will know you are lying, and they will lose their trust in you.”
It was the hardest thing I had ever done, but I didn’t lie to them. Ten years later, I’m glad I took that advice.
If we tell them, “She has gone to a better place”, they will want to go with her.
If we tell them, “He has gone to sleep”, get ready for your kids to be scared of ever falling asleep again.
If we tell them, “She is one of those stars looking down on you”, they will be awestruck but ultimately confused.
If we tell them, “He has gone to be with the angels,” they will wonder why he chose the angels over them.
In my opinion, any one of these avoidance tactics will result in you losing their trust. Added to that, they will be no better prepared for the next, inevitable loss.
If you would like some help with how to talk to the children in your life about grief and loss, I can help you to find the words.