March 22, 2004
Talking With Children About Death
Reverend Linda Yates
Note: identifying details have been changed in examples given.
Talking with children about death has the same aspect about it that all other matters of life and Christian faith do - it is at the same time both simple and complex.
It is complex because when talking with a child about anything important some characteristics of the situation and the child's age and nature need to be taken into consideration. For example, one would talk to a toddler differently than a ten year old. Then again, you would have an entirely different discussion with a teenager. Also, some children may not be at their full emotional and/or intellectual maturity for their age level. For example a teenager who has significant challenges in terms of intellect and emotional maturity would need to be talked with in the terms of discussion that would be suitable for a younger child. Another question that needs to be asked as one enters the conversation is how close is the child to the person who died? If a grandparent whom the child visited only occasionally died, the conversation would contrast significantly to that about the death of a grandparent with whom a child lived. For the sake of discussion in this article I will use the scenario in which a parent dies. I do this for a couple of reasons. First, unfortunately, I have had much experience of late doing this. Secondly, it seems to me that it surely must be the most difficult conversation to have with a child. If you can get your head around that then other conversations will be easier to both understand and have.
The nature of the death needs to be taken into consideration. Was it a tragic accident? A death after a long and painful illness? Was the person young or old? When I talk to children whose parent has died in a tragic accident for example, I think it is important for them to know that a) the parent did not want to die because they really would rather be with the child, b) the parent's last thoughts were probably of the child and how much they loved them, c) that the parent did not suffer and d) that the parent is now safely enfolded in God's love (more about that later). I feel that not only are all these things usually true, but the child, dealing with the devastating loss of someone they love, needs to put these assurances deep into their consciousness in order to strengthen their ego and sense of a Self that is loved. I tell them that God did not want their parent to die and that God cries with them because God wanted them to have the person they loved here with them until they themselves were old and grown up. Too often, adults, needing assurance themselves tell children that God "meant this to be" or that God "needed their loved one in heaven." This puts God in the terrible, narcissistic role of needing their loved one more than the child (sacrilege!!! - as if anyone needs anything more than a child needs a loving parent!)
Children and teenagers are so egocentric that they almost always assume somehow that the death of their parent is their fault, no matter how they died. So I usually tell children it is not their fault when someone they love dies. Guilt is a huge issue for children. When a parent dies after a long terrible illness as in the case of cancer, people say equally dumb things in an effort to be helpful. Some people will say "You should be glad now, your MOM is no longer suffering." This puts the child in the position of being mad or sad, naturally, that their parent has died. However, now they are supposed to be HAPPY of all things! What a terrible child they must be! Sometimes adults tell the child that their loved one has fallen asleep. Imagine how terrified a child can be of falling asleep forever themselves when they are left alone in their beds! Use the words, death, dying and dead. Don't say that the person has gone on a long trip or use any other euphonism for death. Children need honesty and truth. They also need to be allowed to be children. Telling a child that they are now the man of the household or that they now need to take care of their surviving parent is a cruel and unfair burden to place on an already overburdened child. Adults can saddle children with huge psychological burdens that will be with them for a long time. If the adult is a clergy person or someone in authority who is supposed to know better, the damage can be immense. If you have already done some of these things, forgive yourself and move forward with new knowledge, understanding that your intentions may have been loving but your actions now need to be altered.
In terms of honesty, children and teens need your emotional honesty, not just your words. Share your sadness with them in a non-burdening way and allow yourself to cry in front of them. This shows them that it is okay to have these kinds of feelings and it is not the end of the world if adults cry. This is important even for clergy to remember.
Children, whether they are grieving or otherwise, have a natural curiosity about dead bodies. This is not to be discouraged. I am from Newfoundland and most people still have living memories of bodies of loved ones being laid out in the parlour. Wakes were held at home around the corpse for three days or more, usually until people from far away could arrive. Up until this last century death and dying were much more accepted and present in a real, concrete way in our lives. The deaths North American children are now usually exposed to occur on television, movie and video games and more often than not happen within violent, unrealistic, uncaring scenarios. Whenever children are present at the funeral home, or if they are present in the service and have not been to the funeral home I will often ask them if they would like to go over to the coffin before the service to see the person who has died. (Of course I seek permission from the parent first). When we arrive at the coffin, I explain how the person they knew is no longer there, just their body is. I explain how just like hair or fingernails that have been cut off, the body they see in front of them is no longer living - it is just body matter that has no life and therefore no feeling or thoughts because the person who they loved or knew is no longer in it. This seems to be important because children are such concrete, experiential thinkers that they imagine their loved one in the ground getting cold or in a cremation furnace getting burned. Then I tell them they can ask any question they want and I will answer it as best I can. But I also remind them that there is much that I don't know and there are some things that no one can know the answer to. All of us need to be able to do this - admit that there is much we don't know. In terms of the next life, I remind them and any adult around that even Jesus sometimes had trouble describing it and used to use stories called parables about everyday things to explain it. He would always assure us that God waits for us in the life after death and looks forward to loving us in a new way. With suicide and teens in mind, I also remind them that we may not choose our time to die. God intends for us to live a long life full of adventures. I explain to children that eventually, because we all die, we will all be re-united with the person we have lost in a safe way, (important for children whose parent was abusive), that we don't fully understand now.
One thing that children and teens seek above all else is security and the knowledge that someone will care for them. Not all children will name it out loud but all will worry that someone else they love will now die. I try to assure them that there are people who love them and will take care of them and won't die like their loved one. I point out to them who those people are and try to draw those people into a discussion that will realistically allow the child to feel more secure.
Another complexity thrown into the whole death conversation is the fact that children and teens often find it difficult to articulate their feelings when asked to. They are more likely to talk about how they feel when they are engaged in some other task like putting together a puzzle, doing a craft or playing cards. So, if an adult wants to have such a conversation spending time in such activities is a good place to start.
Now, for the simple part of having discussions around death. Once, I was given the task of revealing to two young children, (five and eight years old) that their parent had just committed suicide. Terrified for a variety of reasons, but mostly that I would somehow damage these children if I did it wrong, I called a friend of mine who is also the Mental Health Care worker in this area. She calmed me down and said, "Well, here is what you need to do. Listen, listen and listen some more. Then answer honestly their questions with as little detail as possible. Then listen, listen and listen some more. When all that is done, keep coming back to see them and listen, listen and listen." This has turned out to be good advice. I learned that the honesty was important because, living within a small community, in a matter of days the children were exposed to schoolmates who asked them all kinds of questions about the suicide. For them to have learned about the nature of the death for the first time at school would have been devastating and damaging. Providing them with as little detail as possible was important because the death is destructive enough - they don't need to have more horrific images than necessary left in their heads. As well, details lead to more questions requiring more details. Keep it simple. Shut up and listen to the child. The listening is where the meaning making, comforting and healing happens.
Adults are often so reluctant to talk about any death with a child, because they have so much grief work to do themselves, that children's questions around it go unanswered and this is problematic for a number of reasons. First, what they may be imagining might be worse than what actually happened or is about to happen. Or they might be worrying about other people or themselves immanently dying as well as the person they loved. Or they might be worried that the death was their fault. Or they might be thinking that their loved one is still feeling pain. Only careful listening will discern these issues. Only careful listening will remove some of the POWER of the terror and pain by allowing a child to NAME it. Listening might involve a technique that Jesus often employed, namely answering a question with a question. If a child for example asks "Linda, what happens after we die?" I will usually respond with, "Well, what do YOU think happens." This opens up the conversation in some very important ways. Remember, never be afraid to say "I don't know. I think about that sometimes too." That allows a child to see you wrestling with the unknown and surviving it. In other words, you can become a role model or mentor for living through the mysteriousness of the death of someone. In any discussions I have with congregation members or grieving families, I always let them know that I put children's needs first. I see that as a Christ given directive as they are the most vulnerable and powerless among a grieving group. During the committal of the parent who committed suicide, the oldest of the children started to fidget and become a little distressed, at least to my eyes. So I stopped the service. I went to him, bent down and whispering, asked if he was okay or if I could help him with anything. Luckily these children are regular attenders so we had a pre-existing relationship. He whispered back that he was afraid his parent would be cold in the ground. Was there water or mud down there? I explained that there was a nice new pine box down in the grave to hold the coffin. I sent some prayers of helplessness to the Holy Spirit for guidance. But all I needed to do was look in his eyes. The fear in them reached my heart in a silent, sure way. This child had heard enough words. He just wanted to SEE for himself. I asked him if he would like to look at it and turned to his other parent for permission. I then took both children over to the head of the coffin poised on top of the grave where they could have a better view of what was underneath. As we walked I was very aware that the huge crowd of onlookers were holding their collective breath. The children peered underneath and an instant countenance of relief came over their faces. They skipped back to their other parent. I resumed the service. That is all they needed at that point. It is not something an grieving adult would normally think about, but as previously said, children are concrete, experiential thinkers and learners. These kids just really needed to have that image in their head of a safe, dry place for their dead parent to rest in. We have to listen, observe and pray in order to respond to these needs.
It is important for people who care for grieving children to have resources to read together with the children. I have a number of pamphlets that I give out. When people receive a lot of material it can seem so overwhelming that none of it is read. Death and grief are overwhelming enough; expecting people to go through a lot of literature to find what is appropriate is expecting too much of them . So, I keep on hand literature for children that are age appropriate for different stages and different situations. I have attached some of these to the end of this. Traditionally most minsters give out Water Bugs and Dragon Flies by Doris Stickney (Pilgrim Press, Cleveland Ohio, 1982). However, I think that it is too allegorical for children to relate to. I still give it out because teenagers and adults LOVE it and I believe it is helpful for them as they work through their grief with children. (Adults and teens will read it if they think it is for the children!) I also encourage grieving families to allow me to do a children's story if children are present at a funeral. I have visual aids that I use for this. They consist of oil paintings of various stages of gestations. (See A Children's "Time" During a Funeral). Most children and adults seem to love this part of the funeral. But it needs to be done with a certain amount of respect and comfort on the part of the presider.
These are just some of the issues pertaining to talking about death with children. People have written volumes on the subject. Because of the high rate of death of young and middle aged adults in my pastoral charge of late I have read quite a bit about it. There still seems to be an awful lot we don't know in terms of how death and grieving affects children. Historically, I think we always thought that children grieve like adults. We, at least know that much is untrue. On the whole, I guess I would say by way of advice to caregivers of grieving children - a) be honest within yourself about your own difficulty with the subject, b) listen, listen, listen c) answer questions honestly with as little detail as possible d) listen, listen, listen e) pray, f) find appropriate resources to read with the child and then listen some more. Caregivers should be willing to refer to health professionals when the child is behaving in ways that are causing distress or if the child seems extraordinarily sad, angry or behaves unusually. Your family doctor might be a good place to start.
Finally, children are experts on picking up on adult's attitudes. So believe in the children you care about. If you believe they are irreversibly scarred for life, they will believe it too. Children are amazingly resilient and often have many people in their lives who love them. In the case of the children of the parent who committed suicide for example, they have a wonderful, loving surviving parent who despite their own tremendous grief is providing their children with excellent nurturing. They have some extended family who are very involved with them as well. Look around the situation and find these kind of assets in the lives of grieving children. Look within the children themselves and help them find their own internal assets and resilient strengths. Remember, none of us walks through the valley of the shadow of death alone. God is with us. Thanks be to God.
Reverend Linda Yates