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It's not easy to think of death when we look at our kids. How and when will death first enter their lives? Through a pet? A friend? A relative? There's no way for us to know for sure. What we do know is that sooner or later, our kids will be confronted with the reality of death. As parents, we can gently prepare them for that day (or grieve when it comes) by helping even our littlest ones understand that this life will have an ending for all living things. If you're struggling with the words, these parents share how they help their kids wrap their minds around the ideas of death and dying.
If you want to give your child the hope of seeing the deceased in heaven, be thoughtful about your approach. "Our daughter is 4... while heaven is comforting for adults to think about, it was confusing for Hannah at first," says Ohio mom Kara. "We lost our beloved family dog and we had so many well-meaning people tell Hannah that Bailey was in heaven. To Hannah, this meant that Bailey was somewhere else and would/could just come home. We read a lot of age-appropriate books about death and that helped. Most importantly, we had to be OK talking about it a lot. We did eventually add heaven back into dialogue and now she seems to have a better understanding of remembering Bailey but also recognizing the permanence of death."
Talk through it
Jennifer, mom of three, miscarried five times in between her sons and found it important to communicate openly and frequently. "We chose to talk about Jesus and how even though we didn't get to raise those little people on Earth, that we would see them in a heaven. Anytime our sons would seem to struggle with their feelings, we would go to the cemetery and feed the swans and talk, or to Corby pond... Those two places became places of healing and conversation. At some point, that conversation became not so hurtful and now we just talk once in a while as needed and desired about those siblings. We look forward to meeting them and we choose to make sure our hearts are ready to do so."
New England mom Kaitlyn says, "I've been very matter of fact with Ethan but only sharing what I felt he could handle (the poor kid cried when Steve Jobs died). I've tried to emphasize that most people die when they are very, very old but I've also had to explain why a young mother I knew died of cancer. I just say that so and so died and if he asked about heaven, then I say that God takes care of them because I'm not sure that it's my place to shape his view of what happens after death... when I'm not entirely sure myself!"
Tell the truth
Joseph Primo, author of the book What Do We Tell the Children, advises to, above all, tell the truth. "Honesty is the keystone, the foundation of having a dialogue about death with children. I think there’s an idea out there that as parents your job is to protect a child’s innocence, but that’s not reality. Bad things happen every day, and they happen to kids. And if we’re in honest communication about these things we’re empowering kids to develop coping skills for the rest of their lives." President of the National Alliance for Grieving Children
Children need to understand the mechanics of death before they can begin to grasp deeper concepts like heaven or afterlife. "Literal definitions are important," Primo notes. "To better equip kids in understanding the nature of death, keep it biological. How does the body work? How do we function? And that is what causes death. Kids are concrete thinkers and that provides them with an understanding that death is not some abstract thing, it’s a physical experience. Then, depending on the family’s history and context, it would be appropriate to follow up with spiritual beliefs. If you don’t start with biology you will be faced with questions like, 'If Grandma’s in heaven, who is in the box?'"
Teaching children to grieve in a healthy way is tricky, since many of us have difficulty grieving ourselves. One of the best ways to help your kids deal with loss is to let them see you do it. Let them hear you say how much you miss Grandpa. Let them see you cry. Tell them it makes you angry. Let them in. If you do, when they feel those same things it won't be scary. They'll understand they're not alone in their pain, and it's OK to feel whatever they need to feel.