At some point, in some way, we all have an experience with death. And I don’t mean our own. Whether we lose a friend or family member, or a pet (or even favorite character off a show), death comes to anything living. Just by acquainting ourselves with the living, we set ourselves up for feeling the pain of loss.
For a child, this can be very difficult to understand. How we handle these situations can set them up for a life of struggling through every loss or one of coping and accepting the losses that come their way. No pressure! Ultimately, everyone chooses their own way to make it through a death. We just have the opportunity to lay some groundwork for them to build upon.
Being very religious definitely helps me but I don’t even believe that is a requirement when coping with a loss of a loved one. Here are things I often say to explain death to my children as well as some things that help me cope. For those of you without religious beliefs, might I recommend mormon.org. For those of you without a desire for religious beliefs, hopefully some of these suggestions can still help.
Talk about what happens when someone or something dies.
And don’t make up a story about it going to a pasture or how you gave their dog to a friend who really wanted one. Tell your child that it died. That means it/he/she isn’t here anymore. Only the body stays. The spirit, the essence of what made them them is gone. It won’t move or make noise bark, meow, talk, etc.) or play anymore. For me, I say it went to live with God and Jesus because that is what I believe. I do this with even very small things. The other day, my youngest son accidently smashed a spider on the carpet. My oldest became very distraught. I talked to him about how it was ok for the spider to die and that Heavenly Father got to have it now. He was still sad that the spider was gone but realized it was ok.
Place emphasis on the fact that everything dies.
We all have to die to make room for the new things that come. New trees couldn’t grow if the old ones always kept them shaded. If people never died, we’d have run out of land a long time ago. Knowing it is normal helps for kids.
Try to answer their questions about how things die.
That is my son’s most frequent question when he sees a dead calf on the ranch.”Why did it die?” Often, I don’t know. Sometimes I do and I tell him, “he got sick” or “she died being born.” I don’t sugarcoat it. I also don’t get gruesome about it. I just answer honestly. Knowing why and how always helps him. This kind of goes with the one above. It’s normal and it’s ok.
Talk about people or things dying before they actually do.
Now I can hear my little sister’s exasperation at this suggesting. She hated all the “doomsday” talk in our house growing up. It made her worry. Don’t go around telling your kids, “Yeah I could die before you even graduate high school!” or that will become their panic point. They will never want to graduate. Don’t tie your death to their life or it could hinder them living it. And don’t get super specific. Just let them know that one day you will die and it will be ok. Grandmas and Grandpas will die. It will be sad and we will miss them but it will be ok because it’s the way it’s supposed to work.
Acknowledge that you will get to see them again in the next life.
Heaven is real. Tell them that. Tell them everything you know about what it will be like there. If you don’t know what it’s like, try to find out yourself. Study the scriptures. Ask someone from a church. Pray. Children love to hear about God. They love to envision Heaven. Knowing that the time without someone or something they love is short helps them have the strength to get through it.
Let them talk about it.
If you don’t really care about the goldfish you flushed ok, but don’t expect them to be over it at the same time as you. Don’t expect them to handle it the same way as you. If one of your parents died, your child lost their grandparent as much as you lost a mom or dad. You are their parent. You let them grieve how they need to. If it’s hard for you to talk about it, help them find someone they can talk to, just don’t try to make them stop. Let them see you cry. Let them know it’s ok to be sad for awhile…even a long time. Sadness means you loved them. And the opposite is true. Don’t make them talk about it if they don’t want to. Allow them to grieve however they see fit.
Let the void exist.
It is so tempting to try to replace or fill that hole. Don’t get a new dog right away when theirs dies. Don’t try to have a really fun great day to help them forget about it. They will never get a chance to go through the proper mourning process.
I realize that I’m still pretty young and don’t have a ton of experience with these things but I have experienced my fair share of loss throughout my life At 9 years old, two of my grandparents died within months of each other. My older sister died when I was 22. I’ve lost 2 pregnancies. I’ve had several friends and acquaintances pass away. I know what it is to mourn. And I know how hard it can be when you have people depending on you to hold it together or to help them through. I know some of these suggestions won’t work for you but I hope some might. Give them a try and let me know how it goes. If you have any suggestions or improvements to this post, write them in the comments. I would love to be able to handle these situations better as I’m sure we all would.
And also, I’m sorry for whatever loss it is that brought you here.
P.S. For more information and thoughts on grief, this article from the Huffington Post is spot on. It discusses the stages for grief and different ways people may (or may not) go through them. Definitely worth the read.