The loss of a loved one is extremely difficult. Having to talk about death with the children left behind tears what is left of a shattered heart even further apart. I knew I couldn’t back away from these conversations – I didn’t want my children to fill in the gaps with their imagination. I also wanted to make sure they could trust me to tell them the truth. It needed to come from me and I wanted to be the source of their truth about what happened. It’s my job to define death and afterlife for our family.
Telling my mother and father-in-law that Steve had died was the worst thing that has ever come out of my mouth. Telling my children that their daddy was now an angel was the most heartbreaking thing I have ever had to say.
I was lucky that my girls had some prior knowledge of death. We had lost a dog a couple months prior to Steve’s accident. Steve was heartbroken and he took a lot of time explaining death and heaven to the girls. Even through tears he made it seem like a great place. There is no doubt that the foundation he laid made my conversations a little easier. Here are six tips for talking to your children about death.
1. Don’t Shy Away from Talking about Death
Death is part of the cycle of life. In our society, it is something that we typically shy away from talking about regularly. I don’t know if it’s because we feel ill prepared, or unqualified or if it’s because we fear that it may make people uncomfortable.
It’s important to figure out your stance and take the opportunity to talk to your children about death. If you are a Christian, talk about God and heaven. A death of a pet is a great first opportunity to start the conversation. Don’t wait until you lose someone important to introduce the concept of death!
2. Choose Your Words Wisely
If you say the person “went away” kids take that literally. They will wonder why they were left – or when they will be coming back. As hard as it was, I explained to the girls that the Jeep rolled over and daddy got hurt. He had to go to heaven to get better.
There were reasons for my honesty. They needed to know they weren’t going to see the Jeep or daddy again and they needed to know why. They especially needed to know that their daddy didn’t leave us. In fact, I reiterated hundreds of times how much their daddy loved us and how he would never choose to leave us.
The one thing that was really hard to explain was when I said that I knew their dad was near us. I said he was talking to my heart. Reanna got really sad because she couldn’t hear her daddy talking to her and she wondered why her daddy couldn’t talk to her. Remember that kids think very literally or in black/while, so be prepared to explain whatever you say in a way they can understand.
3. Help Them Remember
There were times I could hardly speak a word and Reanna would ask about her dad. She wanted to hear stories. She wanted to know if I remembered certain events. There are no words to describe the pain involved with these conversations and the amount of tears that were shed. However, it is important to keep him alive.
She was grieving in her own way and she needed to remember. She needed to be listened to. Most of all, she needed me to put my desire to curl up in a ball of tears aside and just be there as her support. She needed to know that she could count on me to be her confidant.
Here we are one year later and we still love to tell stories. I praise her for pictures that include her dad. In all of her school work we list her “angel daddy” on forms about family. The girls love to hear about their Dad. I still struggle getting through stories without tears, but the tears are worth it. They deserve to know how great their father was!
4. Explain What to Expect at the Funeral
Remember I mentioned that children are literal thinkers, right? Imagine what it is like for them to see their daddy “sleeping.” I took the time to explain that they would be seeing their daddy’s body, but only his body was left on earth. I explained that he got a new body in heaven, one that was not broken.
This brought on questions for months about how daddy gets to heaven, what he looks like in heaven and all sorts of different things. I still do not know how to explain it all to them, but I am honest and tell them that I don’t have the answers.
I tried to keep the girls away from the coffin, but they did have their time to see him. I still remember Kaelyn saying, “Daddy, wake up!” Talk about a heartbreaking moment!
The girls had a nanny – Steph – and I asked her to play with the girls during the visitation. I wanted them to be there, but I wanted them to be able to be kids as well. They played outside in their dresses. Someone went and got them ice cream cones. They were content and taken care of – that meant the world to me. They came and went as they pleased, which allowed me to focus on trying to keep myself together.
I remember driving by the “bubble,” where Steve’s funeral was held and Reanna asking if we could stop and see her daddy in the box again. She said she just wanted to see him one more time. Don’t we all baby girl…
Above all, follow any leads your children give you. Reanna leaned over and asked me if she could say something on the microphone in the middle of the funeral. I asked if she was sure – she was. The song, I Miss My Friend was played – it was the same song we played at our wedding for three special loved ones missing on our special day. I placed a rose on his coffin during the song and walked Reanna up on the stage, much to the pastor’s surprise. I asked for the microphone and at the end of the song handed it to Reanna. I didn’t know what to expect, but she simply looked at a packed basketball gym and stated, “I love daddy” and handed the microphone back to me. Her strength at four years old amazed me!
5. Talk to Other’s Children about Their Loved One
First, it is absolutely okay to talk about any fun, uplifting stories involving the person that passed away. Be sure to ask ahead of time how the death was explained to the child if you do plan to talk about that person.
Children like to ask questions and your intent may not be to bring up the person’s death, but a child may ask anyway. Be prepared to answer. They need to know it isn’t a scary or a taboo subject.
Align what you say to what they have heard from others – even if you don’t agree. Children need a consistent message. My in-laws did a great job giving me a heads up about any questions the girls asked and how they answered the questions when I wasn’t there. This ensured that we never broke the children’s trust by giving them two different stories.
6. Seek Help
I’ll admit that I didn’t seek help for me or my children, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t recommend it. I asked for referrals from the state patrol and our family doctor. I only wanted to go somewhere that specialized in children’s grief. I wanted someone I could trust.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t anyone that was a clear choice – even in Fargo, which is 60 miles away. So, I studied and read up on how children manage grief. One thing that I am good at is learning – this activity made me feel like I was doing something to help my children through this.
As you can imagine this was the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced in my life. I still consider myself lucky – lucky to have married such a wonderful partner in life that loved me and my girls with his whole heart. He will always be remembered as an amazing father and husband.
It’s so important to introduce your children to the concept of death early on – you never know when loss will happen. Consider the six tips above as you do and pass this message on. Death is hard – but you can make it easier by talking. Find the right words to say and start preparing your family today. Hopefully you’ll never experience a loss like mine, but the loss of a grandparent or another close relative or friend is hard and confusing too. Be prepared!
My children were young (four and two) when my husband died. Do you have experience with older children or teenagers? Anything you’d change or add to my list?