Explaining death to children

All kids encounter grief, and none is too young to cope. Here's why you need to talk openly about death, and help with how to do it

By Susan McLelland
Explaining death to children


Four years ago, on my November birthday, my grandmother died. Last year, on the evening of that anniversary, I was cuddled up in bed, reading to my five-year-old daughter, Charlotte, when I choked on the words. My eyes teared as my other daughter, Lauren, seven, walked into the room. “What’s wrong, Mommy?” she asked, as I wiped my cheeks. “Is it Great-Grandma?”

I nodded. My grandmother, Margaret, raised me from about age four. We were closer than most mothers and daughters. When I was young, I told her everything, including which boys I had crushes on and which girls were picking on me. As I got older, we discovered that we shared a passion for world issues and literature, which we often discussed while shopping for clothes. Even as an adult, wherever I was in the world for my schooling or work, I would call her, often two or three times a day. And she was right there when I was wheeled out of the delivery room after giving birth to both of my girls. Not surprisingly, Margaret is Lauren’s middle name.

I rubbed my daughters’ backs as my tears fell. I talked about how my grandmother used to stroke my forehead and brush my long hair the same way I now do for them. I also talked about how she was a little different than most grandmothers: She drove her expensive sports cars too fast, for instance.

“I liked running in the hallways of her building,” Lauren chimed in. “She let me be a wild thing!”

“I miss Warren,” Charlotte interjected. Her mind had turned to her uncle, who died from a brain tumour a year and a half ago, at age 34. By the time we were ready to turn off the lights, we were all weeping, peering at photos of James, Warren’s now three-year-old son. “He must be so sad not to have a dad,” Charlotte lamented. “I bet he is,” I replied.
 Like many parents of my generation, I was raised in a family that didn’t show much emotion, especially grief. I was determined to do differently with my own children. Which is why I let those tears fall when I feel sad about my grandmother’s death and talk openly with my girls about their little cousin’s loss. I also share many of the stories I write about in my work as a journalist, including the life of a young victim of the war in Sierra Leone. Of course, I sometimes wonder if I’m doing the right thing. Are my children too young to handle grown-up pain? Am I burdening them with my own sadness?No, says Linda Goldman, a Maryland-based grief therapist, specializing in children. “What is mentionable is manageable,” she explains. Goldman goes on to say that children can sense when you’re upset. Explaining why and showing them that you are OK will both alleviate their anxiety and model good coping skills. “There is a myth that we are protecting children by not giving them information,” says Sarah Henderson, a counsellor at Bereaved Families of Ontario. “But how else does a child learn that being sad is part of life? Or learn how to work through that sadness in a positive way?”

As for the question of age, experts say that no child is too young to mourn. “Even infants and toddlers have the capacity to grieve,” says Goldman. They can feel when those around them are sad, she explains, and they suffer their own losses. Goldman tells the story of a mother who died in a car accident. The older children went into therapy, but the father felt that the youngest, a toddler, was too young. By age five, this child was having nightmares, wetting the bed and drawing disturbing pictures of the accident. “He had stored the grief,” says Goldman. “And it came out in different ways and at different stages of his development.”

Cindy Lang of Calgary has seen this happen with her son. Thomas was two when his father, Michal, died after a biking accident in August 2005. Lang instinctively did some of the things the experts recommend. For example, she kept Thomas’s routines (naps, meals, playtime) the same. But when Thomas kept asking, “When is Daddy coming home?” Lang would reply, “Your daddy is in your heart.”

Then Lang discovered that this answer probably wasn’t helping Thomas when she attended a seminar on grief about six months after Michal died. “Young children think so literally that Thomas might have actually believed that Mike was in his heart,” says Lang. So she tried something different. She held Michal’s helmet and told her young son that his father was dead and that he wasn’t coming home. To Lang’s surprise, Thomas immediately changed the subject by asking, “Where is my train?”

Over the years, often at unexpected moments — at the park or a restaurant — Thomas will talk non-stop about his father. “He’ll ask, ‘How did my daddy die?’” says Lang. “He’ll remember beautiful details of their life together, bike riding, Michal’s bald head, what it felt liked to be held by him.” This is healthy, says Alan Wolfelt, director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Colorado (and host of the seminar that Lang attended). “Children will replay what they remember of the person and the death over and over.”
 But mourning can also be very painful, and because children often don’t have the words to express their grief, it may come out in their behaviour. Thomas, for instance, began to cuddle with his mother more after she told him about his father’s death. Sometimes kids regress while mourning, reverting to baby talk and temper tantrums. “These are often the child’s way of saying he is hurting,” says Henderson. Experts caution parents not to shut these behaviours down too quickly. “The message we send to children when we say ‘stop being angry’ or ‘stop crying’ is that mourning is shameful,” says Henderson. “Children need to know that everything they feel is normal and healthy.”
Play and art therapy can help children express grief and the complicated feelings that sometimes come with it. For example, Goldman describes a process called “magical thinking,” in which a child believes she has caused something to happen that is out of her control. Goldman has worked with children who felt relieved when a sibling died after a long illness — and then felt guilty for feeling relieved. She also worked with a child whose mother died in the attacks on theWorld Trade Center on 9/11. “She blamed herself,” says Goldman. In therapy, Goldman worked with the girl to understand these guilty feelings. “Eventually she said: ‘My mommy was sick that day. I should have made her stay home.’”

It is sometimes very challenging for parents who are grieving themselves to create an atmosphere in which their children are able to grieve. When Eric Mackey and Gina Strimas’s six-week-old son, Ezra, died in the spring of 2008, they had to help their six other children mourn while coping with their own devastation as well as the stress of a police investigation into the infant’s death (a routine process with SIDS deaths in Ontario). They kept Ezra’s memory alive through photographs, poems, books and family rituals. Mourning was such a natural process for the family that when Rowen, 11, was told by a teacher not to include Ezra in a class assignment about his family, he was confused. “I count Ezra at home,” says Rowen. “I didn’t understand why I couldn’t count him at school.”

Experts say discussions around death and mourning should start early, regardless of whether someone close to the child has died. The death of a beloved pet or the move of a close friend are good opportunities for parents to initiate conversations that can help prepare kids for bigger losses down the road. And, says Wolfelt, the way adults care for children when they are suffering a loss has much to do with how children will support others. “When children are shown compassion, they become compassionate,” he says. “The capacity to love, after all, also requires the capacity to mourn.”

I discovered this recently with Lauren and Charlotte. Over the years, I have always talked to them about my work, which often involves travelling to developing countries and chronicling the impact of war — including the horrors suffered by children in places like Colombia and Rwanda. When the earthquake in Haiti struck, both of my girls decided to donate their birthday money to survivors. “There are children with no mommies and daddies. Can we help them?” said Charlotte.

After school the next day, I went with my daughters to help them withdraw money from their bank accounts. Then I stood by proudly as they donated it to the charity Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders.

Good Grieving

• Experts agree that it’s healthy to keep the memory of a deceased relative alive. Children can make memory boxes in which they place reminders of the person. Cindy Lang of Calgary wrote and designed a book for her son, Thomas, about his life with his dad, who died in a biking accident when the boy was two years old. Similarly, after Heather Hewitt’s husband died suddenly from pancreatitis, she dug out one of his ties and wrapped it in an elastic band so that her nine-year-old daughter, Susan, could keep her dad close to her while she was at school.

• Young children may be able to describe their feelings as colours. Dr. Seuss’s My Many Coloured Days is a good tool to introduce this concept.

• Children can make peace jars in which they place items that make them feel calm and happy. They can have another jar for things that make them feel sad. “This can help children get their emotions out,” says Sarah Henderson, a counsellor at Bereaved Families of Ontario.

• Closing rituals are very important for children in honouring the death of someone significant. Unless children express a strong wish not to attend a funeral, experts recommend taking them, explaining what will happen there and what they will see.

Books for Kids

The Fall of Freddie the Leaf by Leo Buscaglia (3–6)
When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death by Laurie Krasny Brown (3–6)
Everett Anderson’s Goodbye by Lucille Clifton (4–7)
Badger’s Parting Gifts by Susan Varley (4–8)
Healing Your Grieving Heart for Kids: 100 Practical Ideas by Alan Wolfelt (6–12)

Resources for Parents Bereaved Families of Ontario offers counselling and group programs for families. The website has links to similar organizations in some other provinces. Resources for Parents The website of grief therapist Linda Goldman offers tips and recommended reading to help with talking to children about death and mourning. The website of Alan Wolfelt, director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Colorado, offers resources, such as DVDs and colouring books, to help children cope with grief. Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital’s Dr. Jay Grief Program offers counselling for children and support for families.

This article was originally published on Apr 05, 2010

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