Talking to children about death can be a challenge. Knowing how to introduce the topic and what to say is really hard. So many people put it off. This story gives a great example of how to introduce the topic followed by some more ideas on what to say.
When my husband died unexpectedly, we had to let my grandchildren know. (Jimmy 12 and Maggie 14 – names have been changed for privacy). My son picked them up from school, and we went with my daughter (their aunt) to the beach. They had just been told that their granddad had died by their mother. We all walked along, not knowing how to broach the subject. It was difficult even for me, who has been dealing with death all my working life. Do we start to talk about it, or wait for the children to begin?
After a while, my daughter suddenly said to Jimmy,
“why don’t we write Granddad’s name in the sand, and watch as the waves wash it away. That way we can say goodbye.“
So Jimmy wrote the name in huge letters close to the waves. We all watched and said our goodbyes as the waves slowly washed the letters away.
Jimmy later wrote an amazing poem about
the experience which he later read out at the celebration service for
my husband’s life. You can read this lovely poem here.
It was one of the most moving things in the ceremony. I asked my daughter where she got the idea. She didn’t know. It just came to her in a flash of inspiration. I think what we need to take from this, is to be open, to try and relax and go with whatever happens.
On the way back along the beach, Maggie started to ask questions. How did he die? What happened? Why did it happen? She was ready to find out. We tried to explain in as normal a way as possible exactly what had happened as well as we were able.
Both children as well as my new step-grandchild took part in the funeral ceremony. It was more of a celebration of my husband’s life than anything. They read poems and Jimmy even played the saxophone. We kept the service as casual as we could. It was held in a bright and cheerful room at the funeral directors. The coffin was at the front, festooned with flowers, my husbands wood-working projects, and lots of photos.
We had a delightful female celebrant who was friendly and approachable, and who made the children feel involved. At the end we played some jazz – my husband’s favourites, said our goodbyes and left. We didn’t go onto the crematorium but to the local golf club with all our friends and family, where the children enjoyed the food, and got a lot of fuss made of them.
It may not have been everyone’s cup of tea, but it felt right to us, and it was easy for the children to be part of it. All my friends said it was one of the most lovely ceremonies they had ever experienced.
Sometimes we don't acknowledge children's grief, and that can cause problems
Don’t think because we might possibly have got it right with my grandchildren that I was always able to help my children cope with grief.
When my mother died, I myself was in denial and couldn’t accept it. I had nursed her for a few months, but then she went up north to be back with her husband and sisters at the end. I wasn’t there when she died.
When we went up for the funeral, our children who were 5 and 8 were looked after by friends. When I came back we moved house, and the children went to new schools. I never talked about my mother, or told anyone that I had just lost her.
I certainly didn’t talk to the children about it, because I hadn’t accepted it myself. I hadn’t been able to say goodbye to her, neither had I chosen the flowers, or really been consciously present much at the funeral.
My daughter told me years later that she had developed a phobia of people being sick. She couldn’t be around people having a few drinks in case anyone got sick, and she was afraid of hospitals and ill people. Eventually she had a dream and realised it was all about my mother being ill at our house when she was dying of cancer. I never helped her to understand what had happened to my mother, for her she had just disappeared. That fear had developed in her sub-conscious mind that people who get sick just disappear.
I think if I had taken her to the funeral, talked to her, and explained what had happened, she wouldn’t have had all those years of fear.
But there was nothing I could have done, as I was in denial myself.
If something similar happens to you, don’t wait years to get help. Think about how the death is affecting the children, and if you can’t help them yourself, get another family member or a friend to talk to them.
Whatever happens don’t be hard on yourself, and don’t feel guilt. It’s all part of life’s knocks. My daughter eventually understood where her fear had come from and got over it. She is editing and publishing this website with me, and we have talked about it over the years. Perhaps if we had had the internet and easier access to help all those years ago, I might have coped better with my children and grief.
One of the best ways to start to talk with children about death and grief is to get a really good book. Working through one of the many excellent books available is a good start in getting the conversation going. I have recommended some good ones here.
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