My mother is dying. How do I help my kids deal with her death, when I’m not dealing well myself. — Sad Dad, Hopkins
IT WAS THE DAY BEFORE All Hallows’ Eve that it happened. My husband, on his way home from work, braked suddenly. Out of the corner of his eye, he’d spied a black, little body lying prone in the road. Magic was warm to the touch. The life-force that had catapulted him to the highest of branches in pursuit of squirrels and taken him belly-crawl low in his obsessive search for mice, still radiated strong. But his spirit had gone.
Wrapped tightly in Todd’s birthday sweater — now shroud — Magic was buried in the cold, autumn earth, beneath silent trees, at the back of our home. A few hours later, numb with shock, filled with dread and braced for the storm of our children’s grief, we gathered them together. Wrapped tight in our arms, we told them the truth. Our cat had been hit by a car. Those glittering eyes — rich green — had closed forever. Magic was dead.
Death is one of life’s taboo subjects that we tend to avoid talking about — but we shouldn’t! Birth and death are part of the cycle called life. And whether we accept it or not, sooner or later our kids will face the death of a beloved pet, a friend of the family, or a family member, and will walk that dark road called loss. So what should we do to help?
The National Association of School Psychologists recommends talking to kids about death as early as possible. The Hospice organization agrees: “By talking to our children, we discover what they know and do not know. If they have misconceptions, fears, or worries, we can help them by providing needed information…and understanding.”
From the dead deer on the road to the funeral procession parked outside your church, there are always events that can spark a discussion about death. When you talk to your kids, ensure you answer your kids’ questions honestly and as sensitively as possible. And let them know that you don’t have all the answers and that’s okay, because death is as mysterious and otherworldly as birth. Also, appreciate that little kids are literal kids! So speak from the heart and avoid using phrases like “kicked the bucket” or “passed over,” which might confuse, rather than enhance, your child’s learning.
Of course, if you and your child have been recently bereaved, your heart may be too bruised for talk at first. And your kids (whether tots or tweens) may not know what to say either, since they lack the emotional maturity and the language to completely understand or convey what they are feeling. If that is the case, reach for a book and let it do the talking for the both of you.
Dr. Laura Markham says, “Books can be a tremendous help in explaining death to our children. Seeing that others have experienced loss helps kids to feel less alone with the trauma…(and) re-reading the same book over and over often gives kids an opportunity to process their grief, sometimes by talking and crying, sometimes simply by feeling.”
From a Gentle Willow: A Story For Children About Dying written by Joyce C. Mills to Dog Heaven by Cynthia Rylant to my personal favorite, Colton Burpo’s Heaven is For Real (kids’ version) there are a number of great books out there for children. Choose one that resonates with your family’s spiritual beliefs about death and the afterlife. And ensure it uplifts, inspires and comforts you too — so that when you read it with your child, you can heal together.
Scarlett says, “When our cat was killed last year, I felt so sad. Mom bought us Heaven is for Real and we read it together. I liked seeing the pictures of the animals with Jesus. Mum and I pray for Magic and all the animals who are hurt or dying, every day now. Something good came out of Magic’s death.”
If books can help frame a child’s thoughts about death and loss, art is a great way to help them process through their mixed feelings. And processing feelings is imperative for healing. If detrimental feelings aren’t acknowledged, they can remain locked up inside the body, where they sit and fester and cause dis-ease. It’s not for no reason that kids suddenly complain of a tummy ache or come down with a fever.
Art therapist Mary Gambarony concurs, “Art allows kids to take the pain and take the sadness, take the frustration, take the questions, and put it outside of themselves and put it on something objective in front of (them) and be able to look at it!”
So, as part of your child’s bereavement process, let them draw, paint, sculpt, collage or just chalk on the driveway. And join in. When you both finish, talk about your artwork, what you like about it, what you don’t, what it means, why you drew it. Sometimes parents avoid grieving in front of their children. But by sharing your own feelings of anger, hurt and pain — you reveal the inner musings of your soul. And in turn, your child will open up too and there will be healing for the both of you.
Todd says, “In the weeks after Magic’s demise, our kids painted — a lot. They were a montage of mostly black and grey images; dismal reminders of our kids’ sadness and loss. However, as the seasons changed, so did their art. First a rainbow, then a sun, then a butterfly appeared in paintings of Magic, letting Nadine and I know that our kids were moving on.
Talking, reading, drawing, reflecting, writing and praying are activities that we can do to help our kids to process through death and the grief it brings. But nothing brings a semblance of “closure,” like a funeral or memorial where a child can say goodbye.
Family therapist Carleton Kendrick writes, “Most child bereavement specialists believe that children as young as 3 years old are equipped to attend both a funeral and a burial at the cemetery. Kids need as much closure as adults and these rituals satisfy that need…(but) a child shouldn’t be left alone at a funeral service or ever be forced to go.”
If you feel that your kid is too young or fragile to attend a funeral service, then create a memorial experience at home and allow your child to honor their loved one in a way that is meaningful for them. Leo says, “Our family held a memorial service for Magic. We lit candles and prayed for him. We all shared what we loved about him. It was sad because it reminded me that Magic was gone, forever.”
Helping our kids learn about life — and death — is our job. When our child is bereaved, know that healing is a process. There are no shortcuts, but with kindness, caring and compassion we can support them through. At the end of the day, when we teach kids to deal with death, we also teach them to hold hard to hope and strong to faith. And most importantly we teach them of the power of love and family to see them through.