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Where's Grandpa? Talking to Children about Death

[This post, dealing with the sensitive question of how to address the subject of death with young children, is written by Linda Lawson.  She is on the faculty of Ozark Christian College and teaches in the area of Children's Ministry.] 
       Solomon Grundy
       Born on Monday
       Christened on Tuesday
       Married on Wednesday
       Took ill on Thursday
       Worse on Friday
       Died on Saturday
       Buried on Sunday
       And this is the end of
       Solomon Grundy

The Withdrawal of Death from Childhood
       Of the more than five hundred “Nursery Rhymes” preserved in the Oxford Book of Nursery Rhymes, more than one out of ten, like Solomon Grundy, deal directly with death. 

       This may not be surprising, since the world before the last century was one where children encountered death and grief often. As such, children’s “games” reflected this reality. The well known infant game “Peek-a-Boo” originates in old Saxon slang from “Alive and Dead.”
       Children today are generally more isolated from family deaths than were the children in the past.
In part this reflects the fact that medical advances have extended the average life span by more than fifteen years. Another factor is our own desire, as parents, to protect our children from emotional pain. These are sad events and they create very sad thoughts and feelings.
       This does not mean our children are not exposed to death. On television people die quite often, only to magically appear on some other show. Animated characters are blown up and shot up with amazing regularity. Genuine deaths, such as that of Princess Diana, will be followed by biographical specials in which (to the child) she is alive, walking and talking right there in living color.
       Our awkwardness with talking with our children about death may also come from our own discomfort with the subject. Even as Christians, we find it hard to think about, much less talk about, death and dying.
       Awkward or not our children will have times of trying to cope with death.
       “What happened to Snowball, Mommy? Why won’t the doggy move?”
       “Why is everybody crying, Daddy? Did something bad happen to Cathy?”
       “But how will grandpa go to bathroom in that box?” 
       Children’s understandings of death vary tremendously from preschool years through the early teen years. As such a child’s needs in dealing with death also evolve. All children need comfort, loving touches, and permission to express their feelings. But the need to really “understand” death emerges slowly through the childhood years.
Answer Their Questions, Not Ours
       One of the most common mistakes we make is “over-answering” a child’s questions. The questions we have about death are not the questions of a five year old. And the things a five year old wants to know are often not the things we imagine. One five year old was visibly upset when he heard that grandpa’s body was being moved from the hospital to the funeral home. Efforts to explain that grandpa had died hardly helped at all. Finally the boy blurted out, “But where did they put grandpa’s head, Mommy?” It was only then that the parents heard the phrase “took his body to the funeral home” as a five year old would have heard it.

Early Childhood
       From infancy through about age three children are not capable of having any real understanding of death. To some degree, any separation is a kind of death and death, then, becomes simply another, even if longer lasting, separation. Games with children often play with the concepts of loss and return.
       The primary need of children in this age range in a time of loss is for immediate and almost constant loving presence. They need to be held, touched, kissed, and hugged.
       Beginning around age three children have developed the perception of “object permanence.” That is, just because mom left the room does not mean that mom no longer exists. The three year old, of course, never thinks of it in those terms. They simply become less distressed as they learn that the “mom-thing” inevitably returns.
     Unfortunately death presents the preschool age child with an unexplainable reality, the “person” who disappears does not comes back again.
       In these preschool years children will try and make sense out of what has happened. The questions will be brief and direct: “Where’s Daddy? Why won’t he play with me?” The answers should also be brief and very concrete. “Daddy has died and dead people cannot move or talk any more.” Even these answers will only be partly understood by the child. Like the toddler, preschoolers greatest need is not for answers (a very adult perspective), but for love. “Who will play with me?” is closer to their world than “What happens to people after they die?”
       Because they perceive the world in very concrete terms, some questions from preschool (and elementary age) children can seem odd or even harsh. “Should we put some food in the box so Aunt Mary can eat?”  “Oh,” with a giggle, “Mommy’s such a sleepyhead.”
       Since they now have an “object permanence” perspective, it only is natural that they apply the same perceptions to death. “Mom, take Billy to the doctor so she can fix him.” “Let’s go dig up Grandpa so he can play with me.”
       Remember that life and death are not clear ideas to children. A flower is just a “thing” while a stuffed animal as “alive.” Several additional suggestions will be offered later, but for now the key principle is to try and see the world through the child’s eyes, and not our own.
       “Mom, can grandma breathe in there?” does not need a lengthy explanation about physical death. A simple and very concrete answer is best, “No, sweetheart. But grandma’s dead now and dead people don’t need to breathe any more.”
       Another difference is that, unlike us, children will generally not “stay on subject” very long. A question or two maybe followed by a sudden interest in a comic book or cartoon. This may appear to indicate the child does not care or understand.
       Children manage difficult ideas and stress, frequently, by this kind of "on-again off-again” behavior. Most of the time it is best to let to wander off and on the subject at will. Chances are that they are digesting ideas and thoughts, even while they are playing. After a while they may suddenly ask another question. This is very normal and quite possibly necessary for children trying to digest difficult or stressful ideas.

Elementary Years
       From ages six through twelve children will begin to understand death in relatively realistic terms. Some of this emerging understanding may produce times of sadness or questions. Around age six my son Stephen walked in and somberly asked, “Will you love me after you’re dead.” After I almost spilled a cup of hot tea all over myself, and did my best to give a short and direct answer.
       “Am I going to die, Daddy?”
       “Are you going to die someday, Mommy?”
       These questions may be unnerving, but they are important steps on the road to a healthy understanding of physical death.
       In these years the child will come to understand that animals die, that people die, and that they themselves will one day die. They come to understand that physical death is permanent (in terms of daily living) and that people do not always know when or how they will die.
       In these years, also, children begin to experience grief and loss in ways that are similar to what adults experience. Children experiencing grief can go through a number of “acting out” behaviors that can be disrupting or alarming. Parents or adults who are working with a child who is dying, or has recently experienced the death of an immediate family member should look into some of resources listed at the end of this article.

What about Heaven?
       To this point, I've not talked much about heaven.  This is not to downplay our certain hope in eternal life. The promise of heaven, and ultimately of New Earth, is real.  We know the grave is not the end of our lives or the lives of our loved ones. I know that my dad, my grandparents, my nephew Lee, and countless other loved ones are in heaven right now.  I know that is true for you, too. We know that we will see them there.
       Should we share this with our children?  Of course!  By all means.  Repeatedly. But we have to remember that a child’s questions usually involve the concrete (what I can see and touch) and the immediate. We cannot imagine not being concerned about the issues of life after death.  But, we are not young children.  Their questions will generally center on the physical, not the abstract or spiritual.  In other words, we need to listen to respond to their questions when they ask them.  We can teach them about heaven as we answer their questions
       Raising our children to understand the uncertain nature of physical life is an important part of the parenting task. Sometimes this will make them very sad.  As a mother (and now grandmother), I can tell you how much my heart breaks when one of my kids cry. Our desire to protect them from all these sad and tearful times seems to be simple parental love.  Tragically, in doing this we may contribute to them growing into adults who are unable to cope with loss.
       A lack of this awareness in teens (raised in what one writer called a “death-denying culture”) may be related to high risk behavior like drunk high speed driving or rampant sexual promiscuity.  
       We sometimes hear people complain that many teenagers and young adults live like there's no tomorrow.  That’s an ironic statement, since believing there would be no tomorrow would result in radically different choices for many of them. The truth is that by raising children insulated from experiencing times of grief and loss many of us have contributed to a generation of young adults who live like there will always be a tomorrow.
       by Linda Lawson
Linda (like Tom) also serves
on the faculty of
Ozark Christian College

1 comment:

Cameron Watford said...

Thank you for sharing this Dr. Lawson. This is a very timely article for our family. Libby just lost her grandfather yesterday and we have been discussing how to talk about death with our two children (Abby - 5 & Kenan - 4). Linda mentioned some resources at the end of the article, but I do not see them listed here. Would you be able to provide me with those so that I might look them over to see which ones would be of most benefit for us? We would be very grateful. Thank you and I hope & pray that you and Linda are doing well. God bless.