There’s no way to avoid this simple fact: death happens
And, when it does, we often struggle with how to approach talking to our kids about the subject.
Recently, in our community, a young mom passed away suddenly – leaving behind her husband and two children, a 1st and a 5th grader. In other parts of the country, recent tornadoes have devastated communities and left hundreds of families grieving the loss of loved ones. Across an ocean from us, Japan is still reeling from one of the largest earthquake/tsunami combinations many of us will see in our lifetime – with a death toll that has surpassed 10,000 lives lost.
In the midst of dealing with death, our children often approach us looking for answers. At the same time, we’re faced with the daunting task of balancing our own grief with guiding our kids through the process. Here are some thoughts that I keep in mind as I guide families tackling important questions surrounding death and mourning.
The question I’ve been asked the most in my years of ministering to families and communities who are grieving is whether or not a child should attend the funeral of someone outside of the family. When answering this question, it’s good to think about where a child is developmentally. As parents, we often project our emotions and desires on our children – for better or for worse. If one of my closest friends lost a family member, I would want to be there for that person to provide a sense of community in mourning. My four year old son, however, wouldn’t provide that same sense of community for a peer – children’s friendships are different than adult friendships and parents often lose sight of that during times of emotional crisis.
I encourage families to talk openly about the grieving process, but forcing a young child to attend a memorial service might cause more harm than good. However, if a child wants to attend a service with their parents, I see that as an opportunity for a family to share the grieving process together. I discourage families from having their younger children sit amongst peers – again, they aren’t looking to each other for support – adults are most often viewed as their protectors/comfort. Peers rarely operate in this role for young children.
The most important thing I try to tell families during the grieving process is that children need to know that they aren’t alone. Parents don’t have to have everything “figured out” in order to give children a sense of safety and comfort.
I have found the following online articles helpful in shaping my conversations with parents talking to their children about death:
One of the best articles I’ve read on natural disasters and our response as Christians was written by my Senior Pastor and friend, Jim Miller
Children’s Ministry magazine provides more than just information on the subject, they actually provide suggestions for how to talk with kids about death
iVillage gives an in depth answer to the question “Should my child attend a funeral?”
The most useful article I’ve ever read on the subject is from hospicenet.org
If you don’t want to click through right now because you don’t have time, I encourage you to at least read their summary of how children mourn, based on age and developmental stage. (below)
Characteristics of Age Groups (to be used only as a general guide)
Infants – 2 Years Old:
- Will sense a loss
- Will pick up on grief of a parent or caretaker
- May change eating, sleeping, toilet habits.
2-6 Years Old:
- Family is center of child’s world
- Confident family will care for her needs
- Plays grown-ups, imitates adults.
- Functions on a day-to-day basis.
- No understanding of time or death
- Cannot imagine life without mum or dad
- Picks up on nonverbal communication.
- Thinks dead people continue to do things (eat, drink, go to the bathroom), but only in the sky.
- Thinks if you walk on the grave the person feels it.
- Magical thinking
- you wish it, it happens (bring the dead back or wishing someone was dead)
- Death brings confusion, guilt [magically thought someone dead]
- Tendency to connect things which are not related.
6-9 Years Old:
- Personifies death: A person, monster who takes you away
- Sometimes a violent thing.
- Still has magical thinking, yet begins to see death as final, but outside the realm of the child’s realistic mind.
- Fails to accept that death will happen to them – or to anyone (although begins to suspect that it will).
- Fears that death is something contagious.
- Confusion of wording [soul/sole, dead body, live soul].
- Develops an interest in the causes of death (violence, old age, sickness).
9-12 Year Old:
- May see death as punishment for poor behavior.
- Develops morality – strong sense of good and bad behavior.
- Still some magical thinking.
- Needs reassurance that wishes do not kill.
- Begins an interest in biological factors of death.
- Theorizes: People die to make room for new people.
- Asks more about “what happened”
- Concerns about ritual, burying
- Questions relationship changes caused by death, life changes.
- Worries about who provides and cares for them.
- May regress to an earlier stage
- Interested in spiritual aspects of death.
- Views death as inevitable, universal, irreversible.
- Cognitive skills developed
- Thinks like an adult
- Questions meaning of life if it ends in death
- Sees aging process leading to death
- Sees self as invincible – it will not happen to me.
- Sees death as a natural enemy
- Need for adult guidance (grief process, coping skills).
- Needs someone to listen; to talk with.
- May feel guilt, anger, even some responsibility for death that occurred.
- Not sure how to handle own emotions [public and private].
Other thoughts or questions? Do you have resources you’d like to suggest? Share them in the comment section below!