Mom's Talk: Dealing With Grief

How do you explain death to your children?

This week I received news from my relatives in California that my father's aunt died suddenly following a bout with cancer.

After reflecting for a little bit on what this week's Moms Talk topic would be, I decided it was a good time to broach the subject of death with children.

The death of a loved one is hard to understand - at all ages-  but how do you explain death to your children?

Some people write books, others rely on counseling services.

How do you help your children through grief? How do you explain the death of a loved one? What resources have you found helpful?

Each week in Moms Talk, we will start the discussion, take your questions, give advice and share solutions.

Teresa Mask (Editor) April 13, 2011 at 05:16 PM
Great question, Daniel! Explaining death or loss to children is a difficult. It's a tough concept for them to grasp - whether it's a change of seasons, a flower that wilts or a pet who is no longer around. From experience, my best advice would be to decide how you are going to approach the topic and stick with it. My toddler keeps asking where our dog is. She died nearly a year ago, and frankly, because our daughter was so young, we weren't prepared for her to ask about the dog. The first time we kind of ignored the question, the next time we said she was lost. Another time my husband tried to put a spiritual slant on it. He told her Pica was still around, but she just couldn't see her. That confused our girl even more. So, no doubt, the key is to figure out your message and stick to it. Who else has a suggestion? Or who has an idea on what that message should be?
Jessica Nunez April 13, 2011 at 05:25 PM
I'd agree with Teresa -- I still don't have kids, but I think it would be smart to be straight with them right off the bat. Do your best to explain that death is permanent, but try not to make it seem scary ... explain that its just a natural part of life. I think the hardest thing about explaining death to young kids -- when it is someone really close to them -- is that they might not have any idea what it is yet. It's something very complicated that we learn about slowly as we get older, but for those who have to deal with it so young, it must just be a very hard concept to grasp.
Daniel Lai April 13, 2011 at 05:26 PM
Thanks Teresa. That's good advice. I don't have any children of my own, but several of my friends do. I've heard them attempt to explain death to their children and it seems to be one of those hard things that there is no easy answer for. I know Maria Shriver has a really good book out for kids called "What's Heaven?"
Teresa Mask (Editor) April 13, 2011 at 05:34 PM
I've heard about that book! I still keep getting the dog question, so I should go get it. Thanks for the reminder.
Peg McNichol April 13, 2011 at 05:34 PM
I'm sorry for your family's loss, Daniel. As for your question: When my son was quite young, about 3, he got it in his head that my recently deceased grandma was living on the moon. He wanted to go visit her! When he was older, one of my sisters died suddenly. My son and daughter had some anxiety over this because it was clear that people could just 'go away' without notice. We had to reassure the kids that, while death is part of life, Dad and I planned on being around for a very long time, indeed. Meanwhile, Teresa -- not that you asked for a suggestion -- it may help for your family to do some kind of ritual to remember Pica: a mini-memorial service where you look at photos or plant a tree or something to show that, even after pets and people are gone, they do live on in our hearts. In this way, you can establish a pattern of accepting a difficult but unavoidable fact of life which may help your daughter cope with future losses. Just a thought. Thanks for posting this provocative question, Daniel!
Teresa Mask (Editor) April 13, 2011 at 05:43 PM
Yep, I am looking for suggestions. Thanks. I love the idea of a ritual. Daniel, are there young children in your family? If so, how was your father's aunt's death explained?
Daniel Lai April 13, 2011 at 06:30 PM
Hi Teresa, I do have younger cousins. Because we just received the news yesterday, I haven't been able to get in touch with my cousins to see how they are holding up. I know when my grandmother on my dad's side passed away last year, some of the younger cousins chose to attend the funeral and some did not. I think, as you said, it's all on how you approach the subject and explain things.
Christy Vander Haagen April 13, 2011 at 06:58 PM
So far, knock on wood, we haven't had to deal with the death of a human family member, I dread the day. However, we have a strong faith and belief in God and are teaching that to our girls. So when the day comes when they lose someone close, I hope knowing where their loved ones end up will give them, and us, comfort. That being said, when we WATCHED our beloved sweet little Bulldog die right here in our living room, my husband and I fell to pieces, the girls, who loved him dearly, handled it beautifully and comforted US. Kids are amazing. :)
Lori April 14, 2011 at 11:51 AM
As an outside resource for the death of someone particularly close, I highly recommend Ele's Place. They are a local non-profit organization that helps kids deal with grief. It has been a godsend for my daughter who lost her dad last September. She has also seen friends lose a parent, another friend lost her brother, and a friend committed suicide in the past eight months. I don't know how I would have dealt with all of this on my own. I am grateful for our weekly Ele's Place meetings. The focus is on remembering, but they deal with answering questions in a straightforward, age appropriate way. I also cannot say enough about the counseling staff within Dexter Schools. They run grief groups that are a safe, peer-centered, non-judgmental setting for grieving kids to discuss their feelings and fears. We have had our own private discussions as well when grandparents or great-aunts and uncles passed away. We have tried to be honest that there is no exact, definite answer, but that if you seek out your loved one, you will find him or her in surprising ways all around you and that, though a person's body is no longer able to keep going, whether from age, injuries, or disease, there is something beyond the body--their soul, their heart, their goodness--that keeps on in the universe. Whether it's in heaven, or just in the breeze and the stars, they are still with us as long as we remember and keep them in our hearts.
Teresa Mask (Editor) April 14, 2011 at 12:36 PM
Ele's Place sounds wonderful. I just looked them up and see they are based in Ann Arbor, but since they work in Dexter Schools - Daniel, might there be an opportunity for you to do a story on them? Thanks again, Lori, for the tip!
Lori April 14, 2011 at 12:59 PM
Teresa - Just to clarify, the grief groups in the schools are separate from Ele's Place. The Ele's Place meetings take place at the First Unitarian church in Ann Arbor (they are also not affiliated with the church, but rent space from them). We attend meetings in the evenings. Ele's Place does wonderful work and I'm sure they would love the public exposure, but they are county-wide. The grief group at Mill Creek is run by Rob Grams, the school counselor and Elaine Kernahan (not sure on the spelling there) who is the school nurse. The group is for anyone who has experienced loss. I know they stress confidentiality and would not be able to discuss particular kids, but they have been dealing with a lot of loss this year. A story on how they have coped within the school and what advice they've given kids and parents would be valuable, I think.
Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey April 14, 2011 at 08:22 PM
It's great to know there are grief groups around. I had no idea! We haven't had to deal with this issue beyond a couple goldfish, so it's nice to know there are resources out there.


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