2010-07-08 / Obituaries

Telling the truth will help a child grieve and grow

By Rev. Glen Kohlhagen

The first instinct of every parent is to be protective. We put bumpers on the crib. We child-proof our cupboards. our cupboards. We put protection over electrical outlets. We teach the danger of playing out in the street or with matches. And when death suddenly snatches someone away that a child loves, we naturally want to shield our child from the grief.

But guess what? You are already too late. A child learns about grief early in life from us. A baby who cries when being put down for a nap is not just mad because he or she has to take a nap, but they are grieving about not having more time with you, or with their toys.

When death has touched a child you love you will learn that you cannot protect your child from life’s most painful reality. Death comes to all beings but there are ways that you can help the child cope and understand.

First off, tell the truth. Death or being dead are harsh terms that we avoid using. Instead we say that someone is “gone,” “taken,” “in heaven,” or “asleep.” The problem is that the meaning of these words to children is quite different than for adults. All of these terms describe something that is reversible. Gone means coming back. Taken means something will probably be returned. In heaven could just as well mean Florida, a place you vacation to and come back from. Asleep, you awaken, but this term can have very disturbing effects on a child as he or she may not want to go to sleep at night for fear of not waking in the morning.

One of the best things you can do is to describe the physical effects that death has. The dead do not breathe. They do not feel, even when pinched or tickled. They cannot see, hear, move, speak, or smile. A dead person is cool to the touch. A dead person’s body has stopped working like a toy with a dead battery that cannot be replaced.

Death’s permanence is hard for people, especially children, to grasp, and virtually impossible for a preschooler. You did a good job of letting your child know that you would be there to pick them up after daycare, but now is the time for them to learn about the other side. Just as a flower grows, blooms, fades, and dies, so do people.

What we as adults have to do is be honest, especially about our feelings. We have mixed emotions, from numbness to anger, from guilt to sorrow, and maybe even relief if the death was after a long period of illness or pain. Children need to know that it is okay to have several different emotions at one time, and it helps them understand why we as adults are not acting like our normal selves.

In being honest, tell the child why the person died. Put the blame where it needs to be: the person was old and his or her body was worn out, let them know what disease the person was suffering from, tell them about the accident that happened. And above all, do not act like you have all the answers.

If you have particular religious beliefs, tell your child about them with great care. Adults can speak of God’s will because they have struggled with the mysteries of life. But children, whose world is ordered by bigger and more powerful people, may perceive God as a bully.

The question is always, “Should I take my child to the funeral home?” Many people say no, however leaving a child behind means that you are leaving the whole experience up to his or her imagination, which is often guided by what they see on television. Taking the child will give them a sense of reality. The sight of death at the funeral home is both reassuring and honest. Undertakers have remarkable skill at erasing the effects of disease and accidents. Seeing a person in a casket, seeing how waxy and stiff they look, gives the child a sense of the reality between dead and sleeping.

Whatever the child’s age, talking to him or her before going to the funeral home is important. Explain what is done with a body that does not work any more, be it buried or cremated. Describe the urn, or the casket, and that it will only be half open. Tell them what to expect during the service and at the cemetery. Also make allowances for the child’s age and attention span, as some funerals last far longer than a child can sit still.

Lastly, make sure to address the child’s unspoken feelings. Neither children’s nor adult’s feelings can be recognized or predicted. A child may act out in a bad way, or just do so in their normal playing, yet others will retreat into silence. Others cry inconsolably for a minute, then act as if nothing has happened the next. Help the child with his or her inner storm by talking about likely feelings and letting them know that their feelings are important too. What a child needs to know is that you will still be there to take care of him or her.

A wise writer once insisted that only death makes love possible. Because human life is fragile, it is precious; because an individual makes but one appearance on this earth, his or her uniqueness must be cherished. We do not want to protect our children so that they do not have a chance to cherish the uniqueness of the person who has died.

If you have any questions about this article or about resources in the local community you can contact the author, Rev. Glen Kohlhagen, at the Washington Presbyterian Church at 706-678-7511. Rev. Kohlhagen facilitates a bereavement group sponsored by the Wills Memorial Hospital on the second Wednesday of each month at 1:00 p.m. in the hospital library/conference room.

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