A Death in the Family

When a family member dies, you may be reluctant to let your child see you grieve, fearing that the burden of your sadness will be too much for him. But in this situation, it´s even more important to share your feelings. Your child is highly attuned to your ups and downs. Trying to hide your sorrow will be seen as desertion from the child´s point of view.

Parents often ask me: “Isn´t my child too young to learn about death?” I assure them that it is far better for him to learn the facts from his grieving parents than it is to experience their withdrawal without knowing the reason for it.

A child´s sense of death is more primitive than an adult´s. He´ll tend to equate it with being left alone, which brings on the fear of desertion. If parents simply withdraw without explaining what has happened or how they feel about it, the child´s worst fears will be confirmed. For example: “Grandma died, and now Mommy is so sad that maybe she will die, too.”

But when you let your child in on the experience, even let him see that you have unresolved questions about death, he will have the chance to explore “in safety” the kinds of questions that plague us all. He´ll feel included in his family at an important time, and he´ll also have a healing effect on the adults around him, giving them the sense of future and purpose they so desperately need.

I am constantly struck by how often a small child will attempt to comfort a grieving parent. I remember a young mother who had lost her new baby. As she was telling me about it in my office, she started to sob. Her 2-year-old, who was playing quietly in the corner of the room, got up when she saw her mother´s tears and toddled over to her. As she crawled into her mother´s lap, she reached up and clumsily patted her cheek to wipe the tears away. She said “Mommy, I´m here.” Her mother looked down at her, smiled and drew her close. Her child had reminded her that there was a little someone she loved who could balance her grief. For the child, there was the rare sense of power in being able to make her weeping mother smile.

Anytime there is a death in the family, I would urge you to tell your children the truth. Tell him as much as you think he can understand, making sure not to frighten him with painful details. If you say something like, “Grandpa was getting so old that he wasn't able to do all the things he wanted to do” or “When you get old, you get pretty tired, and now he can rest,” you will be helping to prepare your child for the conversations he is bound to overhear.

Naturally, he´ll have questions and unhappy feelings: “Couldn´t we help Grandpa to rest at our house?” or “I miss him and I want to play the games he played with me.” Answer him honestly: “None of us knows why someone we love has to die and go away. Just like you, I hate to give up Grandpa, but what I plan to do is to remember all I can about him so we can keep him with us that way. Can you remember some special things about him to tell me now?”

Your child´s next set of questions is likely to reveal his fears about being left by other members of the family. You´ll also see indications that he is wondering whether his own thoughts or deeds brought on the loss. Because “magic thinking” (the notion that you can affect outcomes simply by your thoughts or wishes) is prevalent in early childhood, children feel that they are to blame. They need repeated assurances that bad things or behavior do not carry with them this kind of retaliation; they did not cause the death.

Of course, share your religious beliefs with your child and talk to him about your own ways of dealing with grief. Children love to hear stories from the past about when their parents were children and their grandparents were young. Make your life as a child come alive for your own child. He´ll get the point that our happy times with loved ones lived on, that our memories are never lost to us.

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