In the previous instalment of this series, we discussed how to talk to our children about death. Here, we raise the issue of how we can best prepare our children to accept the reality of loss.
The idea of saying goodbye forever is painful, even for us adults who can intellectually accept the impermanence of life. For children who find it hard to grasp this basic law of nature, death or the dying process of a loved one is even harder to bear.
As parents, the first thing we can do for our children is to tell them the truth. “Children need to know that they will not be kept in the dark when important things are happening,” writes Helen Fitzgerald, author of the book The Grieving Child. “Knowing this saves them from endless anxiety.”
Visiting the Dying and Terminally Ill
For children who do not see their relatives frequently, suddenly visiting them in their final days can be traumatic if the children are not mentally prepared. To prepare for such a visit, it is important that you let them know what to expect.
• First, ask your child if he would like to go. If he says “no”, it may be because he has some reservations about the unknown. Do your best to allay his fears but if he is adamant on not visiting, do not force him.
• If he is willing to visit, talk about frankly the person’s condition and the feelings your child might experience. Share what you are feeling and what you felt when you first heard the news. It is okay to leave some room for hope.
• Give him an idea of what he might see or is expected to do. For example, you could talk about the kind of medical equipment in the room, the noises they make, or the smells. Is there something he should not touch? Is he expected to speak quietly?
• Mentally prepare your child for the physical changes in the person. You might say, “Grandpa’s skin looks yellow because his liver is not working well” Or “When a person is dying, his limbs become very cold and may turn blue.”
Even adults struggle when they are in the presence of the sick and dying. Children may find the lack of interaction especially difficult, especially when the person cannot respond.
• Some of the activities you might suggest include asking your child to help decorate the room, choose music, or hold hands with the dying person. Let your child know it is perfectly fine for him do quiet activities at the bedside (like homework or reading) while the adults converse.
• Taking a gift, such as a hand-drawn picture, a letter, or some flowers to the ill person can serve as a diversion. Your child may find such visits disconcerting. The gift will provide him with something to talk about. It is also a way to say goodbye.
• Keep the visit short (about ten to 20 minutes). After you leave, take some time to debrief your child and find out if he would like to come back again.
Children who live in the HDB heartlands in Singapore may be used to seeing funeral wakes at void decks. So while parents ponder over whether they should take their children to funerals, in all likelihood the young ones have already been given a glimpse to this ritual.
Rabbi Earl Grollman, editor of the book Explaining Death to Children says that funerals can help children accept the reality of death as a separation. “As a rite of passage, the funeral helps to instil the feeling in a child that he is part of the order of things.”
Unless you know that something scary might happen — such as a hysterical relative who is likely to fling herself at the casket while screaming loudly — most experts say that there is no reason to keep children away from funerals. In fact, very young children are capable of attending funerals without being traumatised. Taking them along in effect conveys the message that this is an opportunity for the living to connect with one another, and to offer love and support.
The key (as with hospital visits) is in preparing your child for what to expect. It is important to explain what will happen at the funeral — the location, what it will look like, how long he needs to be there, who will be coming — before asking him if he wants to go.
Present your question in a neutral manner so that he will not feel that he has no choice. You might say, “Would you like to come to the funeral with me?” instead of “Do you really want to go?” (implied message: Don’t come) or “You’re coming, right?” (implied message: You’d better come).
If the casket is closed, explain why and what is inside. If it is open, discuss what a dead body looks like. “Grandpa will look like he’s sleeping but he’s not because he’s dead. His body will feel cool and firm, almost like the wooden arm of a chair.”
Explain to your child that it is okay to cry if he is sad. Tell him that adults might cry too and in times like that, he can help to offer them a piece of tissue.
Do not force your children to attend the funeral if they refuse to go. Instead try to find out why. Even if they have agreed to go, try not to be upset if they change their minds at the last minute.
It is also important not to leave your child alone by the casket or unattended for a long stretch of time. When children are upset, they will need an adult’s intervention to pull themselves together.
Funerals help us accept the reality of death and let go of the fantasy that the person we love is still with us. Even more so than adults, children need this confirmation.
“If a child is surrounded by sensible adults and allowed to talk out his feelings, he’ll usually handle the time at the funeral home just fine,” write Daniel Schaefer and Christine Lyons, authors of the book How Do We Tell the Children? “Very often he’ll find the ritual fascinating, learn from the experience, and come out it feeling supported, part of the group.… If the adults behave honestly, calmly, and lovingly, the children will respond in kind.”