For centuries, no one paid attention to children’s needs when it came to death, dying and bereavement. Even today, some people believe that children aren’t old enough to understand death, funerals or anything else considered “too adult.” Thankfully, through advances in death studies, this is changing. However, when my husband lost his beloved grandfather in the 1950’s it was still a firm belief.
As a child, David spent many weekends with his grandmother and grandfather in Seaside, Oregon where they owned a cabin. Grandpa Frank was David’s best friend. He introduced him to licorice cream and frequently pulled David in his Red Flyer wagon down the streets of this beach town to the ice cream parlor. They’d both return home giggling and showing off their black teeth. One year, Grandpa Frank died of lung cancer. The days of wagon rides and black teeth were over.
David was told that Grandpa Frank went to heaven. He would never come back. David was prohibited from viewing the body and attending the funeral. Like his deceased pets, he knew grandpa was buried. In fact, all of the family relatives were buried in a cemetery within walking distance of David’s house. Still, at age five, he expected Grandpa Frank to show up and take him to the beach again for licorice ice cream. It never happened.
Every day for weeks, David walked alone to the cemetery and sat weeping by his grandfather’s grave. Sometimes he yelled and got angry at Grandpa Frank for leaving him and not bothering to say goodbye. As David grew up, the visits became less frequent. Yet, even today, at age 62, David tears up, and has retained a modicum of anger just thinking about this traumatic loss and especially the lack of attention and explanation. This single event contributed to deep seated feelings of abandonment that David had to address as an adult.
We are fortunate here in Oregon to have the Dougy Center as a resource for children experiencing grief. The Dougy Center provides support in a safe place where children, teens, young adults, and their families grieving a death can share their experiences. They provide support and training locally, nationally and internationally to individuals and organizations seeking to assist children in grief. They are supported solely through private support from individuals, foundations and companies. The Dougy Center does not charge a fee for its services.
Here are some helpful and healthy ways from the Dougy Center’s website of assisting children in processing their grief. Please note that these suggestions are not verbatim as I’ve added some of my own comments. For more information and the exact wording, please go to: (www.dougy.org)
1) Answer their questions. This is the way children learn. Let them know that questions are okay and that you’ll do the best you can to give them honest answers. Pay attention to their age by using language that is appropriate to their level of understanding. Use concrete not euphemistic words, such as died, killed—rather than passed away or lost. A child may think that if someone passed away or are lost, the might return.
2) Children appreciate choices and feel valued when we offer them. Ask the child if they want to say goodbye to the person who has died, and how they’d like to do it. Include them, if they’d like, in selecting the casket, clothing, flowers, or to even partake in the funeral service itself. Perhaps he/she wants to draw a picture or write a story or poem to be read at the service. Every child’s needs and desires are different so it is important to ask them if and how they’d like to participate.
3) Remember the person who has died. Talk about them. Part of the healing process is reminiscence. Use the person’s name as this will give the child permission to also use it. Share your own memories of the person and ask the child to share some of theirs. When we do this, we help the child recognize that the person they loved can live on in memory.
Children like to have mementos from people they love. Perhaps, a father’s sweater, money clip, shop tools; or a mother’s apron, piece of jewelry or high heels. Children, like adults, each grieve in their own way. It is important to watch how they process their pain so you can help with questions and validate their feelings.
4) Listen. As with adults, listening is one of the greatest ways to acknowledge a person especially if it is done without judgment, evaluation or the need to fix them. Stay away from statements such as “I know just how you feel.” Instead, ask them what it’s like for them. Open-ended questions, ones that can’t be answered with a yes or a no, encourage the child or adult to open up and share at a deeper level. Why questions always put people on the defensive, and the same is true for a child. Instead, use words like “How, what, or tell me more about that?”
5) Holding a Memorial or Funeral service allows for children and adults to say goodbye and to grieve in community. It demonstrates that the deceased was a valued and important individual. Prior to any service, let the child know exactly what is going to happen; what they can expect to see and hear. Invite them to participate if they choose to. Afterwards, encourage them to create their own method of remembrance, for example planting a tree, using some of their allowance money to make a donation to a charity in honor of their loved one, create a memory box, or temporary altar with a photo and candle to honor the deceased.
6) Children take breaks from their grief. Often, their attention will turn to playing with their Star Wars toys, their Barbie Dolls or their Leggo collection. Children more than adults need breaks from grieving. They need to know that it is okay to laugh, have fun, and enjoy themselves even if their loved one has died. They need to know that it isn’t disrespectful or that it means they didn’t love the deceased enough. Remove any guilt they might have by affirming their actions as normal and necessary. Let them know that people don’t have to be sad all of the time just because someone has died.
The important thing to remember is that children are people too. Their emotional landscape is as varied as anyone else’s. Each child should be dealt with in a way that fits his/her personality. We must continue to seek ways to assist them in dealing with losses, not just loss by death, but every loss. Allowing children to grieve in their own way and give expression to their grief through feelings, art, drama, sports or other outlets is equally important. It allows for freedom of expression and helps them to feel safe and cared about. Being honest when informing them of a death and answering their questions will ensure the development of trust and acceptance and will ensure they won’t have the emotional scaring that so crippled my husband’s youth.