Parenting & Other Life Stories

“It’s Okay Mom!” Children’s exposure to Death, A positive note on a very emotional topic

Taking children to funerals is a conGhost Stories OCT 28 2019 Feature Imagetroversial topic: should they attend, is there an appropriate age, etcetera? For us, like most, it wasn’t something we had discussed beyond the shared idea that it is a highly personal decision. When we were faced with the decision about whether to take our son, who was not yet 4, to his grandmother’s funeral I recalled my own first experience of death:

I was very young, small enough that my mother carried me in her arms up to the open casket. It was my great-grandmother’s funeral. There was grief around me, but also an undercurrent of happy memories; there was tears, and there was laughter. I remember my mother teaching me to say goodbye by presenting me with options so that I could decide on my own where my comfort level was, and she said goodbye using one of the options she presented me. In a similar manner, I leaned in and touched great-grandmother, gently laying my hand on top of hers in a simple act of goodbye. I remember other things as well, like the white silk lining in the casket, and the dim lighting. Beyond that I don’t recall much else. However, I do know that I have never been uncomfortable with death. I grieve, but with an understanding about the cycle of life; for that I have been forever thankful.

It was with that memory that we decided to take our son to the funeral. However, I will be completely honest because it was one of the hardest parenting experiences we have been through. My son was closer to this grandmother then words can describe, and because of that our decision proved to be two fold. First, it was good because there is an understnding that grandma is gone. There is no lingering questions about when she is coming to visit, or when he can talk to her, and etcetera. However, this is where the “but” comes in.

I carried him to the casket to see his grandmother, he knew we were all grieving, and he reflected that grief himself by initially copying our emotions. He recognized his grandmother, and he asked a lot of quiet questions about “why grandma is like a statue?” I answered these to the best of my ability. He wouldn’t leave her though, he lingered beside the casket. If he was picked up, he laid his hand on her. As his own slow understanding creeped in that it was time to say our final goodbyes, he actually leaned into the casket and hugged her. His own tears were real now with understanding. He started asking her to please sit up, and he asked to go with her. When I tried to walk away with him in my arms, so the casket could be closed, I was frightened by his strength as he tried to climb and claw his way over my retreating shoulder to get back to her. My husband had to come and assist me because the strength of our son’s grief was suddenly overwhelming. Together we were able to calm him, and goodbyes were said.

9 Things I learned, and would recommend from the experience:

  1. Be prepared for questions that will arise about death, and all that goes with death.
  2. Help the child to grieve. It is a new emotion, and that in itself can be frightening. Let them know it okay to grieve.
  3. Let them see you grieving.
  4. Let them be a part of the remembering. The stories, and laughter that can accompany these memories, are truly therapeutic. Even if they are young, chances are they will have memories too (my son still shares memories about his grandmother).
  5. Patience and love will go a long way, especially for younger children. I know my son needed some extra love as he grieved, and adjusted to the loss. He also needed to hear that grandma loved him, and still loves him. He found it reassuring that love does not stop with death.
  6. Be aware about how you explain the cause of death to children, especially the young ones who are very literal in their understanding. We had explained that grandma’s heart was sick. When he asked if her heart was broken, we assumed that was his way of trying to understand what we were trying to explain. However, a few weeks later when he was hugging a family friend leaving our house, and he told her that he “wasn’t letting her leave” she responded by stating, “You are breaking my heart.” Well, that was a bad thing in his mind, and the response was powerful! We had to do some fast talking to sort that one out. So, I do caution you to be aware of how you explain things. That certainly wasn’t an experience we saw coming when we explained grandma’s death.
  7. Don’t be afraid to be use the word death. I found that using that term, although it is very blatant, was also very honest and clear. We did not experience any confusion using that terminology. It became a word that he was comfortable using as well, which I will also caution caused a few adjustment moments in our life, especially when he would tell somebody that “grandma is dead.”
  8. Be aware of how the death affects the child. My son talked about the death of our dogs (who are not dead), and various other deaths. Reassurance was needed that death is a natural part of the life cycle, but that he didn’t need to worry about death. He passed through this stage of worrying. A great resource is a book by Bryan Melionie and Robert Ingpen called Lifetimes: The beautiful way to explain death to children.
  9. If you think you need help to assist your child in their grief, or if you think your child needs help. Please get it. Children understand differently, and depending on their age it can be challenging to verbalize and express their feelings and emotions.

Almost 2 years after we lost my son’s grandmother, I lost mine. Similarly, I was close to her like my son and his grandmother. I traveled to her funeral service without my family, although they knew where and why I was going. Shortly after returning home, my son came up to me and he said, “Momma, you lost your grandma the same as I lost mine, but it’s okay Momma because we can still love them!” He gave me a hug, and went back to his playing.

By Shari Marshall – 2016

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