By Carol Luebering
When our firstborn was new, I read a news
story about the brutal murder of a child. A mother tiger roared in my soul
and, to my astonishment, I realized that I could kill to protect my tiny
That protective instinct is essential to
our childrenís survival. We baby-proof our homes; we teach the danger of
the street and the risk of playing with matches. And, when death suddenly
snatches someone a child loves, we naturally want to shield him or her
But we have already failed. A child learns
grief early in life- from us. The baby who wails when a parent leaves is
grieving, expressing the awful pain of separation, the same pain which
makes adults cry at funerals.
Working your way through
Death has touched a child you love, and
you are discovering that you cannot protect the youngster from lifeís most
painful reality. But, just as you eased the crying babyís woe, there are
ways you can help now.
Tell the truth.
is a harsh word. We avoid its use, saying instead that someone is "gone,"
"taken," "in heaven," "asleep." But the meaning such words have for a
child is very different from the reality at hand. All of them describe
something within a youngsterís experience- something reversible. People
who sleep awaken; people who go away come back (and, for a child, going to
heaven is not very different from going to Denver); one may hope to
recover things which are taken.
Explain the physical effects of death in
terms your child can understand: The dead do not breathe. They can feel
nothing, not even a pinch. They cannot see or hear, move or speak or
smile. They feel cool to the touch- all over, not like when you come in
from playing in the snow. Their bodies have completely stopped working,
like a toy with no batteries.
And, no, we canít go to the store for new
batteries. Deathís permanence is hard for children to grasp- virtually
impossible for a preschooler. You did a good job reassuring the crying
baby that youíd be right back, that you always come back. Now you have to
teach the other side of the story, and it may take a lot of repeating. The
other side of the story is that death is an inescapable part of life. The
lightening bugs in the jar donít move come morning. Flowers grow and bloom
Be honest about your own feelings. They
are probably mixed- numbness, sorrow, maybe a little guilt, perhaps relief
that a long ordeal has ended, or anger that this life has been snatched
from you. Children need to know itís possible to have several feelings at
one time. It helps them understand why adults are acting so strangely.
Explain the cause of death as well as you
can. Place blame where it belongs: on the very bad sickness or the
accident. Admit that we donít always know why things happen, especially if
you have the painful task of announcing a suicide. Express your religious
beliefs with great care. Adults can speak of Godís will because they have
struggled with the mysteries of life. But children, whose whole world is
ordered by bigger, more powerful people, may perceive God as a great
Should you take a child to the funeral
home, the church, or the cemetery? Many people say no. But leaving a child
home offers no protection from separation; taking the child, on the other
hand, protects him or her from the powerful force of imagination. The
sight of death in a funeral home is both reassuring and honest. The
undertakerís skill softens the ravages of disease and erases even terrible
disfigurement. At the same time, the waxen stillness of a corpse asserts
the difference between being dead and being asleep.
Until [children] are quite sure a person
is no more, and will never be, they cannot finish the work of mourning.
And if they cannot finish it, they cannot free themselves to go on with
life and love and growing."
Sara Bonnett Stein, About Dying
An older child can be offered the choice
between going and staying home. Schoolchildren often feel unsure of their
social skills and quickly weary of trying to figure out what to say to
concerned adults. Offer such a child the reassurance that no one knows the
right words. Arrange, if you can, for the company of friends of your
Whatever the childís age, good preparation
is important. Explain what we do with a body when it doesnít work anymore:
We put it in a special box which we then bury or burn. Describe the
casket, being sure the child expects it to be only half open (if at all).
Tell what services will be held and what will happen at the cemetery. Make
allowances for a childís age and attention span; arrange for someone to
take the youngster home if things drag on too long.
Address the childís unspoken feelings.
Childrenís feelings are often
too outsize to be named or tamed easily. One may act the feelings out in
misbehavior or in play; another may retreat into silence. Still a third
will weep inconsolably one minute and act as if nothing has happened the
next. Help the child with the inner storm by talking about likely
feelings. Sadness is the obvious emotion to expect after a loss, but not
the only one.
Fear lurks large. A brush with death
leaves us all feeling vulnerable, and children are no exception. The
difference is that children are already vulnerable, wholly dependent on
the people who care for them. The death of a caregiver raises a lot of
practical questions: Who will take care of me? Will we still live in the
same place? The details of the answers may need to be worked out over
time. What the child needs to know now is that someone will take care of
him or her.
Any death brings an array of fears about
the imminence of other deaths, including the childís own. These may
surface in the months ahead when, for instance, a child whose brother died
of cancer is bedded down with the flu. Your explanation of the cause of
death now (the bad sickness) is the ground you will build on then. From
the beginning you can assure the child that even though we donít know the
future, one death is unlikely to be followed soon by others.
A young childís misinterpretations of
cause and effect easily lead to guilt feelings. A child may see death as
punishment or as fulfillment of a regretted wish. You can lift that burden
from small shoulders, because you know that misbehavior and bad feelings
donít cause illness or accidents.
Thereís probably anger in that inner stew
as well. The line between separation and abandonment often blurs in young
minds. Things people say reinforce the confusion. Explain that saying
Grandpa was "waiting to die" is not the same as saying he was eager to
leave a beloved grandchild.