What to tell your child about death
NOT long ago a close family friend died. Our three-year-old son, sensing our bereavement and noticing that the once-frequent visitor no longer came to our home, began a barrage of questions:
Will Ruthie’s mommy never come back?
Where is she gone?
When you die, do they put you in the ground to rot like an apple? We were stuck for suitable answers. For how does one go about telling a small, sensitive boy about death, which has been appropriately called “the mother and father of all fears”?
For the adult the death of a loved one is a shocking grievous experience. For the child, who tends to live almost wholly in the present, the experience can be overwhelming. Here is the threat of being cut off from his parents, the people who represent his emotional security. He may think of himself as dying—an unknown experience, fraught with terrors which he can only imagine.
As a way out of their dilemma, many otherwise intelligent and conscientious parents choose to ignore death. When children are present the subject of death is taboo in their homes, very much the same as discussions on sex were forbidden 20 years ago. “Let them stay young as long as possible,” they argue. “Let them not bother their young heads with anything as morbid as death.” Yet, viewed objectively, it is surely as important to help children develop a healthy attitude toward death, the end of the natural life cycle, as it is toward sex, the beginning of the cycle.
Child psychologists I have spoken to readily admit they have not given sufficient time and study to the subject of children and death. Search through their professional literature and you’ll find only the briefest guidance on how to help a child meet a death in his family—an experience so disturbing that, wrongly handled, it can have permanent ill effects on the child’s personality.
By and large, the psychologists have left it up to the clergymen to explain death to children. Yet the various priests, ministers and rabbis I spoke to felt that they were not fully qualified to do the job competently. A Roman Catholic priest told me, “There’s more than religion involved here. You need a skill in handling children and a knowledge of their psychology.” A rabbi explained, “In all the flurry and excitement I generally don’t have enough time to spend with the youngsters.” A United Church minister observed, “I’ve been ordained for 30 years, but at no time have I heard the subject of children and death discussed at a meeting of church ministers.”
Yet how can we shirk the task of giving our children an honest understanding of death? We are living in a world where death is flaunted before them every day. Our papers are full of pictures and articles about war casualties, train and plane wrecks. Radio, television and movies are full of death and violence. Even the child’s toys—guns, tanks and warplanes—are related to death. Little wonder that even the least thoughtful child must anxiously wonder about what happens when life ends.
Surely the most cruel thing of all is to provide the child with makeshift or soporific answers to his questions. One mother explained the death of an aunt by saying, “She’s sleeping a long, long sleep.” Her eight-year-old daughter responded by réfusing to go to bed at her regular time for several weeks afterwards. Another mother told her small son, “Daddy has gone on a far, far trip.” For months after the child hopefully asked when his father would be coming home.
When his older sister died, the timid five-year-old son of an insurance salesman broke down sobbing, “I don’t want to die! I don’t want to die!” His
father assured him he had nothing to worry about: by the time be grew up doctors would have discovered a way to enable people to live forever. Was the father acting wisely in pretending there are no certain inevitable sorrows in life we have to face?
To protect a child, parents will sometimes attempt to conceal a death in the family. This rarely succeeds in doing anything more than heightening the child’s anxiety. Tony, a lively, curious nine-year-old, only learned of his grandfather’s death accidentally when both parents were out of town
at the funeral. They returned next day, mentioning nothing about grandfather or the funeral. Years later Tony recalls: “I felt I was in possession of a terrible secret and I thought of grandpa and his death every day for weeks afterwards. Had mother or dad spoken frankly to me for even ten minutes, I don’t think it would have been the painful experience it was.”
If the answer is not to be found in evasion or misrepresentation, then what can we tell a child about death?
There is no concrete formula parents may follow. What you tell your child
will depend on two things: First, the age, intelligence, and personality of your child; second, the philosophical and religious beliefs of your family. But there are certain sound basic principles that can be followed. To apply them intelligently requires an understanding of how children develop and the reaction of a child to death.
How does a child grow? He grows by observing, experimenting and by asking questions. As he develops from one stage to another he tries to broaden his understanding of the world about him. He will raise questions about sex, the weather, geography and, sooner or later, death. Many of these questions lack the emotional coloration put into them by the parent. Thus, while many adults may always regal'd death as a frightening topic, children may treat it with casualness. For example: A ten-year-old girl was told by her grandmother that, when she married, Grandma would help look after her babies. “Oh no you won’t, Granny,” the child said. “You’ll be dead by then.” Another child, seeing his uncle sick in bed, voiced his encouragement by saying, “Don’t worry about it, Uncle. You’ll soon be dead.”
The parent must create an atmosphere where the child can continue to ask questions. If we taboo the subject of death or act as if it is the most horrible thing that could befall a person, then the child’s questions may stop. To take the place of the sound information we might have given him he may retreat into his fantasy world and conjure up a picture of death a thousand times more terrifying than the truth. Studies of childhood fears have shown there is a wide gap between what children fear and what they have reason to fear.
Parents can help their children acquire a healthy attitude toward death in various ways. A prominent man passes away and his death is discussed in the family circle. A pet goldfish is found floating on top of the bowl one morning or a pet kitten is run over by a car and its lifeless body lies on the road. Parents, on such occasions, should encourage the child’s questions, have him voice his fears.
There are a few obvious lessons to be learned. The first is the biological fact . of death. Death means the end of movement, the end of life, the final separation here on earth. Over and over again the parent must make it clear that death is a part of a natural cycle; it is the inevitable sequel to birth and life—a destiny we share with all forms of animal and vegetable life.
People don’t want to die and the wise parent will not try to convey the opposite impression to a child. Thus, when his pet dog died, one six-year-old told his father, a doctor, “I don’t want to die.” His father, recognizing his feelings, replied, “I don’t blame you. I don’t want to die either. I like living in this house, in this town, with my family. I like seeing my friends, driving our car and going to our summer cottage. I enjoy playing golf and going fishing. All these things give me pleasure. But if you are born you have to die. I, for one, feel that the pleasures I have had out of living make it worth while for me to die.”
What happens to us after we die?
In a home where no religion is practiced the answer can only be a frank, “We don’t know.” Emphasis is placed on the inevitable birth-life-death cycle. Parents who believe in God, but do not follow the teachings of any denomination, may find an explanation of this kind helpful:
“There are many things we don’t know for certain. For example, we are not absolutely certain about what will happen to us after we die. But we shouldn’t worry about it too much because the same God who made this world has made all other worlds too. Isn’t it reasonable to believe that He will look after His children after they die, just as He looked after them while they lived? We should behave as well as we can while on earth and trust the rest to Him.”
This explanation can be elaborated on in line with one’s personal religious convictions. Even within the same religious denomination there can be considerable latitude. A Presbyterian minister, for example, may tell a child about the ultimate spiritual reunion with his father and mother after death.
A United Church minister told me he would stress the persistence of personality: “Nothing beautiful, like the
personality of your mother, is ever lost. We have no full knowledge of what happens after death, but we can be sure that behind it all is the love and protection of God.” The emphasis on j spiritual reunion is also characteristic j of the Conservative and Reform Jewish i faiths.
The Roman Catholic priest would be a little more concrete in his explanation. A priest told me he would speak to a bereaved child in this manner: “You will be reunited with your mother after you die. The reunion will take place in surroundings where there is no pain, no strife, no unpleasantness. In this place you will have everything you desire—even the same body, except that it will be stripped of its blemishes and imperfections. God loves you; that’s why you can look forward to such a wonderful future.”
Religious explanations can harm, rather than help, a child if they are not made in a thoughtful and intelligent manner. The very small child may be frightened and bewildered by talk about the “spirit” of the deceased. Or he may get the impression the deceased is spying on him, which may give him constant feelings of guilt and tension.
Should we permit children to attend funerals?
There can be no pat answer to cover all children and all situations. On the one hand, it can be argued that no child should be exposed to the average family funeral, which all too often is a gruesome, emotional orgy. On the other hand, if the child is kept away while the rest of the family attends, he feels excluded and shut off from those who are nearest and dearest to him. Not being allowed to share the family sorrows means that he has to keep his thoughts and feelings to himself. This may be more harmful than his attendance at the funeral.
Six-year-old Johnny, watching his mother and older brother returning from father’s funeral, their eyes swollen by tears, was confused and hurt. What had gone on? Why wasn’t he considered part of the family? Wasn’t it his daddy too? An eight-year-old girl I know of was excluded from the mourning rites when her grandmother died. Not being allowed to participate in the normal emotional manner she pretended she didn’t care. She laughed, sang, played noisy games and otherwise made a nuisance of herself.
A common-sense method of approaching this problem might be to explain to the child what a funeral is and then give him the choice of attending or staying away. In many cases, the answer may lie in the child attending part of the funeral services.
Some ministers I spoke to were strongly opposed to children attending funerals. A United Church clergyman felt that the average Christian funeral was a shameful pagan ritual. “The church consents to some terrible stuff,” he said. “All that makes for morbidity and terror is to be found there.” He ¡
felt that exhibiting the body was disturbing to the child. He had indelible memories of children at funerals— tense, trembling, the blood drawn from their faces, clinging tightly to an adult’s hand for reassurance. He recalls five youngsters, all under twelve, sitting around the corpse of their mother for two days as it lay in a funeral parlor. All day long, relatives and friends came in, broke down and cried. The frightened children drank in this mass dosage of mourning.
I was told of one funeral that won the approval of my minister friend.
There was a family consisting of mother, father and two boys aged twelve and thirteen. They had always been a closely knit group. When the mother died there was only the briefest service, following which the father and two sons drove up to the family summer cottage. Instead of morbidly mourning her death, they talked about how much mother liked this country place, her special interests, her friends, her plans for the future. They also discussed how they must reorganize their life now that she was gone.
But to be truly helpful to a bereaved
child we must do more than answer his questions. We must look at death through his eyes. What does the death of a mother or father mean to a child, deep inside?
In the first place, not unexpectedly, he feels a great sense of loneliness and insecurity, which he may express in different ways. Peter, a sturdy and independent lad of six, following his father’s departure, constantly asked for help in feeding and dressing. In effect, he was saying, “Look! I feel all alone and I’m frightened. I want someone to hike care of me.” His older sister, Betty, a sensitive blond girl, reacted in a physical way—-she took to bedwetting and having digestive disorders.
Ironically, a child often blames a parent for dying. He sees it as a de• liberate act of rejection. “For if mother loved me,” he will reason to himself, “why did she go away and leave me?” Linda, a thoughtful six - year - old, begged her mother not to go away to a tuberculosis sanitarium. “I want you to stay home the way other mummies do,” she pleaded. “If you go away I’ll have to look for another mummy.” When the mother died a week later Linda was convinced her mother didn’t love her.
Obviously one of the immediate needs of a bereaved child is for a large portion of affection and attention from the surviving parent. If the parent is too overwhelmed by grief then another adult—someone who has always been close to the family—should fill the role. And the child has to be assured, over and over again, that the deceased parent loved him; that the parent did not leave of his own volition.
It is important to know that children usually feel guilty about a death in I the family; they feel that somehow I they caused it. Most kids believe they possess magical powers. What child, in a burst of anger or jealousy, has not wished that his sister or brother may die? If by some quirk of fate they should die, then the child will believe the death was the direct result of his angry wishes.
Or take the boy of five or six who is passing through the period of “being in love” with his mother. He regards his father as a rival for mother’s time and affection and often wishes his father would remove himself from the scene. In his own way he tells himself, “Wouldn’t it be paradise if only he weren’t here!” If father dies at the height of such feeling then the youngster may look upon himself as a murderer.
Some of the unthinking things we say to children may contribute to their feelings of guilt about death. For example, many mothers will chide their youngsters by saying, “You’ll be the death of me yet!” I knew of a matron in one children’s institution who used to say, “After I die I bet you’re going to be sorry for the way you treated me.”
All of this clearly suggests one thing: the child must be assured that he was in no way responsible for the death in the family. The death was nobody’s fault. Death is inevitable. Everybody must die. We cannot cause death merely by wishing for it.
What should the family attitude be toward the member who has died? Should we speak only well of him? Or, to protect the child from unnecessary pain, should we avoid reference to him entirely?
When a beloved mother or father dies there is nothing unnatural about wanting to keep the memory alive. But parents should try to avoid constant eulogies and try to speak naturally. In one home the nineyear-old son was killed in a skiing accident, leaving two sisters, one five and another,six. The mother extolled the brother, his virtues as a son, student and athlete, often saying, “I guess he was too good to live!” She created the impression she preferred the dead child, and that the two survivors could never approach him in any way. Furthermore, if they ever harbored any unkind thoughts at>out him—-and what could be more natural? —it was tantamount to a grievous sin. Contrast this attitude with that of another mother who frequently discussed her ten-year-old daughter, who had drowned, with the rest of the family. This mother not only mentioned the girl’s good points, she also referred to her difficulties and failures, emphasizing that, in spite of them, she loved her all the same.
One father told his eleven-year-old girl she was attractive and considerate like her mother who had died a few years earlier. This made the youngster recall her mother with a great deal of warmth and pleasure. On the other hand, another girl who was told, “You’d . *• tter behave because your mother is always looking down on you,” came to think of her dead parent as an unsympathetic snoop.
Following a death in the family the surviving parent should try to understand how the family relationships have shifted. When a father dies there is a tendency for the mother to cling too tightly to her children, particularly the boys.
I recently met one sixteen-year-old boy who was shy, withdrawn, ill at ease with strangers. He rarely participated in sports or went to parties because his mother said she needed him at home. His father had died when he was five, leaving the wife economically independent but, unfortunately, emotionally dependent.
Another familiar figure is the eldest daughter who inherits the mother’s role of looking after father and the family, thus having to forgo marriage. The assumption of too much or too little responsibility following a family death can prevent a child from growing into a healthy mature adult.
Death is not an easy thing to face -— and that goes for adults as well as children. But it is an inevitable sorrow of life we must all learn to accept. If we tell our child the facts of death as we know them then he will be free to go on with the more immediate business of living. If we fail him by a conspiracy of silence then we abandon him to the mercy of the unknown terrors conjured up by his imagination. ^