Explaining death to a child

Forget me not

Grief is a process toward healing and it is not meant to be a lifestyle.

When my husband was 10 years old, his parents died tragically. It was a murder-suicide, leaving him and his younger sister as orphans. His fathers parents raised them both, and I think they did a good job, however, my husband will tell you that he wishes that they had handled the death of his parents differently. He was told that his parents were killed in an accident. That made no sense to him, because his father had gone hunting in his pick-up truck and mothers car were sitting in the driveway, undamaged. He was not allowed to attend the funeral and say good-bye. It wasn't until after his 25th birthday, that he was permitted to read the police report. Only then, did he learn the truth and got the whole story.

When I was a child, my mother made a point to take my younger sister and I to the funerals of people we didn't know well, so that eventually, when it was someone we were close to, it wouldn't be the first time or as much of a shock. The first funeral I remember was when I was about 10 years old, when our landlord, Mrs. Aban, died. There were 5 generations alive in my family at the same time, on both my mothers and fathers side, so I didn't attend a funeral for someone in my family until my great-grandmother died at 97 years old. Pa died many years later, and then Ma. Ma was closest to me and that was tough, but I wouldn't have managed it as well, I don't think, if I had not already grieved the loss of our 4 babies when I was in my mid-late 20's. It doesn't get any closer than inches from your heart, does it?

How we handle death as adults, will be an example to our children, and how they will handle it later in life. And that is the way they will pass it on to their children, whether they realize it, or not. My husband says he wishes his grand-parents had just simply told him what happened, but then, when it was time to explain death to our youngest daughter Mandy, who has Downs Syndrome, he was ready to repeat a version of what was modeled to him.

In the spring of 2012, my husbands grand-mother died in her mid-80's of old age. She was in a retirement home and she had been declining for weeks. Her passing was very much the opposite of what my Ma experienced. It was slow and painful, so she was on ever increasing doses of Morphine. I made sure that our daughters got to visit Granny during that time, so they could say good-bye. After her passing, the family was able to see her again before she was cremated. I insisted that our daughters go with my husband. I told him to tell them that Granny died; not that she was asleep. At the funeral, we sat in the front. Granny's ashes were in a large urn on a table up in the front of the church. I told our oldest daughter Lisa, who has Downs Syndrome, "Granny is in that jar". Her response was precious. "No! How'd they get her in that jar?", she said in amazement and disbelief. After the grave-side service, I explained about cremation and told her that Mommy and Daddy will be buried that way when we die. Mandy understood that Granny had been sick, but she did not yet grasp the concept that she died or of death. We have attended funerals of church members and stood with other mourners in the cemetery a few times. Every experience, they get more of an idea of what this means and accept it as a part of life.

Why is it so important that they get repeated exposure? Because one day, it will be mommy or daddy. One day, it will be so close to their heart that it will be difficult enough to face, without also being an unfamiliar reality. Preparing them is the most loving thing we can do. Preparing them for life, is every parents job. Death is an unavoidable event in the life of every person. They need to also be prepared for that as well.

In October 2012, I had to have my service dog, Samson, euthanized at 25 months old, due to a genetic condition. He lived by my side, as my service dog, and went everywhere with us. Suddenly, he was gone. Only hours after my husband buried Samson, Mandy asked us "Where Samson?" I spoke up and said, "Samson died". My husband wanted me to say that Samson was asleep. I explained to him why I didn't agree.
Children, especially those with mental retardation, think and process things differently than adults. There needs to be a distinct difference between death and sleep, especially in the mind of a child who is mentally retarded. To Mandy, who can't understand abstract thought and who needs everything to be presented as concrete as possible, a ball is a ball. Not basketball, baseball, football, etc. Just ball. That also applies to "sleep". Everything has to be explained very carefully, in a concrete format.

Telling a child that the family dog went to sleep is confusing, because they will expect them to wake up in the morning. But when they are gone, forever gone, it makes no sense. When they don't hear about "death", they get confused. A parent will never know if their child is afraid to go to sleep, for fear that they will disappear. Nightmares can easily develop from what may seem like a very small thing to an adult, who meant well.

Telling a child that the family dog died, especially after learning about death at funerals, helps them process the reality of death properly. The next day, it just popped into Mandy's head and she said, "Samson died". We hadn't been talking about him. She just said it. I answered, "Yes, Samson died". That was the end of it. She isn't looking for him to return, wake up or suddenly appear. She understands. She didn't cry or get sad, because Mommy didn't get overly tearful or upset. I did cry and I was sad, but I kept my composure.

When Mandy asked where Samson was, I took our daughters out to his grave. I explained that Samson is here. I could tell that they thought back to the grave side services we have been to at the funerals we have attended. "Oh, Samson buried in ground. He died", Lisa stated. Yes, this is Samson's grave, I said. "Just like Charlie, my horse, and Blossom our old dog who both died two years ago. Remember?", I added. "Yea", she said. "I got it".

I keep in mind always, that my response to the things that happen in life will set an example for my children. If I show them, by my example, that this is just a part of life and that it is not frightening, they will have a healthy perception of death, as a part of life.

One added benefit of this experience is, that seeing how easy it is for someone or something to die, and how permanent death is, they are much more careful. Children tend to think they are invincible and immortal. Knowing about death causes them to respect and appreciate life more. They value the people and pets who are alive, because they can be taken from us so easily.