Helping your child deal with death and dying
We are living in extremely tough times as parents. We thought we had this parenting thing down pat, but the coronavirus pandemic has humbled us, mightily. Stories of death and dying are all over our television, in every newspaper and magazine we receive, and seemingly come up in every phone call we receive. We realize we are totally unprepared for dealing with our children around the subject of death. We are dying for your help Adele. What say you?
Dear Utterly Unprepared,
Birth is the word that comes before death. In between is the journey of life. It is filled with twists and turns, resplendent peaceful calm waterways, and turbulent rapids running over treacherous jagged outcroppings of submerged rocks. For every creature in nature, including humans, the final safe sandy shore destination is the same. Death is the final play for us all, on planet earth.
We are all familiar with opposites. Start/finish. Beginning/end. Prenatal care/palliative care. But the birth/death one causes most of us difficulty.
We seem to handle the birth idea really well. Most young couples experiencing the birth of their child are excited, happy, and hopeful. They are filled with all kinds of ideas about how they will rear their child to be an amazing adult, who serves the world with his/her gifts.
We do pretty well with the life journey our children will choose. Young couples read parenting books, take courses, and talk to their doctors. They consult with friends, grandparents, and professionals to learn how to help their child achieve his/her potential under the guidance his loving parents.
Competent parents in almost every other regard, are however, often stopped in their tracks, completely stymied, when someone in their network has had Saint Peter call their name. Dealing with dying and death is uncharted territory for most of us, and our roadmaps and GPS are non- existent.
So, rest assured that you are not alone, Utterly Unprepared. Death is a tough subject for most of us. It is often hard to sort out our own feelings about the deaths of a loved one, let alone know how to guide the discussion about the death of a person, special to your children. I will try to give you a little help, based on some reading, the ideas of a six-year-old child musical prodigy, and my own view of life as a classic Canadian woman, who worked with children most of her life. Take from it what you will.
Deborah Sarani in a Psychology Today article (2016), entitled ‘The do’s and don’ts of talking with a child about death’, suggests the following basic principles worthy of consideration:
1. “Tell the truth about what happened right away.” She suggests that the children will see your tears and sadness and that by you being open about your emotions, the children can learn how to mourn.
2. “Be prepared for a variety of emotional responses.” She suggests that your child may be extremely upset, angry or withdrawn perhaps and that you should accept whatever reaction he/she displays. Realize that you will have time later to better deal with the trauma.
3. “Make sure to use the words dead or died.” She suggests that research supports using realistic words, rather than euphemisms like ‘passed’, ‘lost’, or ‘crossed over’. That approach helps children to grieve.
4.” Share information in doses.” She suggests providing small bits of information gradually over time. Try to gauge what your child is comfortable with from the questions, he/she may ask.
5. “Be comfortable saying ‘I don’t know’.” Some questions your child may ask will never have an answer. For others you may not have accurate information with which to respond. The truthful answer ‘I don’t know’ is always best.
6. “Allow your child to participate in rituals.” Every religion and culture have their ways to say goodbye to someone who has died. Check them out. It will be helpful for your child to have a sense of control about a loss. This goal can be helped along, if you involve the child in those rituals by having him/her in such things as preparing a reading, selecting clothing for the loved one, or putting out photos.
7. “Prepare your child for what they will see in the funeral home or service.” The idea here is basically to paint a picture with your words, of what your children will see ,when they go to the final service, including who will be there, what they will be doing, what people will look like, how the body will be presented, what people will talk about, and how the urn or casket will be dealt with. The author suggests to bring along a sitter for the child, in case you need one.
8. Prepare to talk about thoughts and feelings. Be mindful of the fact that mourning is a process, and that talking about one’s feelings is helpful. Openly express your own feelings about the loss, and encourage opportunities for your child to do the same many times, day after day, until the child no longer seems to need it.
9. Remember to take care of yourself. The author reminds us that parents are the role model for their children and that self-care is critical.
Sarani has a list of ‘Don’ts’ as well. She encourages parents to grieve openly in front of their children, and not to be afraid to share memories of the loved one it is important that even when you don’t know what to say because you yourself are feeling helpless or uncomfortable that you connect with your child emotionally with a look, a touch or a hug. Try not to change the daily routine. Don’t change the subject when your child joins a conversation. Don’t stop laughing.
These ideas give executive summary coverage of the basics that Psychology has to offer on this topic, for children up to about 10 years of age, I think. If your progeny is an adolescent, he/she has greater capacity for abstract thinking and may have lots of questions about the origins of human life, why we are here, or why there is death. He/she may be interested in learning about the various ways mankind has conceptualized answers to those sorts of questions. It may be helpful to think about your own ideas on these questions and come to an agreement about what you both want your child to get from you as parents.
Read on to see what comes out of the mouths of babes, one in particular, on this subject.
On April 22, 2020 a Music at Southminster live-streamed concert entitled ‘FAR APART, ONE at HEART’ showcased 10-year-old piano virtuoso, Sunny Ritter playing piano works by J.S. Bach, Mozart, Chopin and Schubert. She dedicated the Schubert composition to those who had lost a loved one to death. She told her audience to listen for the part in the music that softly said ‘Farewell’ and to notice how the music ended so peacefully.
Sunny also told the story about her uncle’s death, her mother’s grief reaction, and what she told her mother, to bring her comfort. Out of the mind and heart of a darling and brilliant 6-year-old girl, comes a way of explaining death to younger children. You might want to use it, either as is, of with some adaptation that aligns with your own spiritual beliefs.
Sunny tells her audience that when she was six years old, her uncle died. The young girl’s mother was dissolved in grief, despondent, immobilized, and sobbing in front of her daughter. Sunny asked her mother what was wrong. The mother replied that her brother, Sunny’s uncle, had died. She told her little girl that she was very sad, because she would never see her brother again.
Six-year-old Sunny thought differently.
Sunny told her mother not to cry but to be happy because her brother was now an angel. She added that he would be visiting her all the time. She explained that it would not be too long before her mother would be an angel, too. Then she and her brother would be together again, and that they would be able to do all kinds of wonderful things together. If Sunny had had more time to share her philosophy, I’m sure she would have told her mother that angels like her uncle, sit on the end of her piano, encourage her to practice and enjoy listening to her music just like they always have.
I am not sure where sweet Sunny Ritter came up with those beautiful ideas that brought her comfort and peace. Perhaps they were inspired by the Power far greater than ourselves, that created the phenomenal child prodigy at the keyboard, Sunny Ritter herself. Or perhaps it was her mother and father, who guided her in their thinking since she was born and helped her come to terms with the reality of all human life. Birth, a life journey, death. The sequence is universal. Birth, a life journey, death.
Much has been written about death. I encourage you to Google the topic. There are many excellent articles by credible writers available online. Reach out to your spiritual leaders who can offer you wise advice as well. Check out our local mental health professionals who will be excellent resources. They are currently likely overwhelmed with the needs of our people, due to the global pandemic, so it will probably be difficult to access services from them.
If you are reading this, and writing to me, you are among the best of parents I would bet. I am confident that you will handle this, as well as anybody possibly could. Always remember that the human emotions of sadness and grief are a normal part of being human and a sign of emotional health. According to The National Geographic recent publication entitled ‘Your Emotions: The Science of How You Feel’, this emotion is a “potent social-bonding emotion, rousing empathy and uniting us around the person who is facing difficulty and may need extra care and attention.”
I will conclude with a few inspiring quotations which you might be able to use with your kids:
‘In the Garden of Memory, in the Palace of Dreams, that is where you and I shall meet.’ — Alice Through the Looking Glass
‘How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.’ — Winnie the Pooh
‘Keep your head up. God gives his hardest battles to his strongest soldiers.’ — Unknown
Photo: Jordan Whitt, Unsplash