Death was all around me. The first time was when I was seven years old and the phone rang at 2AM disrupting our family’s peaceful sleep with that shrill non-stop ring. It was as if the phone was screaming “get up and answer this call, now.”
Nothing good ever comes from a 2AM phone call.
The next morning my parents were acting really different and I knew something was very wrong. We soon learned that my grandparents had been killed in a plane crash, the only survivor was the pilot. The plane had crashed into the cold, dark, freezing Atlantic ocean. They had just left our house after visiting for Christmas. That was the first time I remember feeling the inexplicable, crushing pain of grief.
I remember sitting in my room, my Strawberry Shortcake comforter on my bed, feeling a sadness that I had never felt before. A sadness so deep that it was physically painful. What if they had just stayed one more day? What if they had just not gotten on that plane?
In the years that followed death continued to swirl around me, like a black cloud that hurls through the sky during a severe thunderstorm, every few years crashing down on me with another painful loss. My aunt died in a car crash, my fourteen year old cousin was shot by a gun, my close friend, only 16, died of a brain tumor and my brother’s best friend hit and killed by a train. Then, when I was twenty two, came the most unbearable loss of all when my father died as I stood by his side holding his hand. I had, unwittingly, slowly and painfully become equipped to handle these tragedies, although each one ripped my heart out a little more.
I began to see an alarming trend, which I first noticed as a child (and now see even more as a mother and therapist) in the larger way that our society handles death; it was uncomfortable, awkward and nobody wanted to talk about it. When I was younger I remember when many of the grown ups around me found out what had happened to my grandparents they seemed so unsure of what to say or do, struggling to know if they should even acknowledge it out loud or at all.
People with well intentions would send flowers and cards, but everyone shied away from actually talking about it. No one wanted to “upset me” I was often told. No one wanted to bring it up, no one even wanted to mention the name of the person who had passed away, just in case it may make me sad or make me think about them. I can understand that initial reaction, except when was I not already thinking about it? Not mentioning it felt like ignoring the obvious and can make someone feel more isolated, as if this great loss had never really happened. Saying something as simple as “I am very sorry for your loss, I am here if you need anything” can make such a difference in letting someone know you are thinking of them.
I know some people who told their young children that when grandma died she “went away” in very vague terms and avoided any deeper explanation and others who feel uncomfortable mentioning family members who have passed away, a desire to stay quiet about it and hope their youngest children don’t ask to many hard to answer questions. But in their well meaning efforts to shield their children from any pain they may feel, they may have just made that pain worse.
By not speaking with our young children about loss it creates more confusion and secrecy around death and while I am not suggesting we expose our children unnecessarily to disturbing and upsetting things, but when the moment presents itself in life, as it unfortunately will, it is important to use that time to guide and help our little ones to understand and cope with these painful situations.
When I had children I decided to make a concerted effort to handle the issue of loss head on. My father (and other loved ones) pictures were up in our home and I made a conscious effort to keep the subject of “who is in that picture” open when my son started asking questions. I wouldn’t hide that grandpa was gone and act as if his passing was a taboo or uncomfortable topic. When he asked questions or when we talked about our family members I would talk about some of the people who were very special to us, but unfortunately they are not able to be here with us anymore and had to go to heaven. Of course lots of questions ensued such as “can grandpa still come back to my house and play with me” “why did grandpa have to go away” children and their natural curiosity will definitely pose some unique questions on this issue, but we arrived at a peaceful understanding where, by never making this a taboo subject, my son began to learn that there are people who we love deeply, but they are not always here in person.
I approached these conversations with honest reassurance. During these many talks with my son (and in working with numerous families who are processing grief), I have found that it is most important to reassure children on a few key specifics. Death sounds (and is) so scary for all of us, but for children it can feel even scarier to think of someone they love now being stuck in a “bad” place. Letting them know that their loved ones are not in pain, are not suffering and are in a peaceful place will help ease some of their fears. The specific details on the illness or accident that took a loved one do not need be shared with a young child, but reassuring them that their loved ones are in a safe place and will never stop loving them is the most essential first step to helping children understand loss.
It is also important to reassure children that mommy and daddy (or their other primary caregivers) are not sick, “no, mommy does not have the same boo boo that grandpa had” since children can worry that something may happen to another loved one. Keeping things as simple and straightforward as possible is best when they are still young and trying to understand the magnitude of loss.
Being honest about how those who have passed away can not come back to earth is one of the hardest parts of these conversations and while this part may be the most difficult, it is necessary or young children may hold onto false hope that someone is coming back. It is also important to mention that while I personally use to say that loved ones are in “heaven” when talking with my son, but depending on different beliefs other terms aside from heaven can also be used. We should also remember that we don’t have to explain everything to young children at once (such as different views on what happens when we pass away) the most important first thing is to help ease some of their fears and explain that a loved one is not in a “bad/scary” place and to let them see how our love and connection to people does not stop just because they have passed away. There is always time, as children get older, to continue to explore the issue more, as long as we keep the dialogue open and welcome the questions.
Sometimes we don’t always have the perfect answer for every question and it is okay for parents to say that they may not know everything about what happens when people die, but letting children know what we do know and believe, such as that our loved ones will always live on in our hearts and memory, is a good starting point for this very complex topic. I once shared with my son that I didn’t know the complete answer to one of his questions, but I did know that “grandpa will never really be gone, because I will always hold his memory in my heart.”
Some other ways to help children understand that our connection does not end when a loved one passes, can be giving a child a special reminder of the person. A picture of them in their room, keeping a toy or an item that the person may have given them or some other item that the person owned and/or creating a memory box.
For our family we keep the connection going by seeing pictures of loved ones, talking about them openly and sharing stories of our favorite things that we did together and while these loses are certainly not what we (or anyone) would ever want and definitely not what we had ever expected to happen, but we have found our own peaceful way to honor their memory and still feel their presence in our lives.