Tough Talks Part 2: Death, Heaven and Other Heavy Thoughts
Fredo. Bubbles. Princess Fishy-Fish. All were names of our pet fish that have gone to the large fishbowl in the sky. Now, Finners seems to be on his last legs. Kiddo does okay with this subject when it comes to fish, but there have been some nights (don't these always come at night?) that she has asked about me or her daddy or other family members and death.
It isn't easy for grown-ups to think about -- and that is something to share with your kids as talks about death and dying come up. It's great to point out you feel sad when someone has died or your thoughts about Heaven and that it is a tough thing for everyone, but there are ways to discuss it so that they don't feel fearful or more upset.
-- Be careful with your wording when you talk about someone dying. Avoid comparing it to going to sleep or that when people get sick, they die...both may confuse your child and start some anxiety about getting sick or bedtime. If someone or a pet is sick, be sure to talk about it and why it is different than getting a cold or the stomach flu. This also helps prepare them for what is to come.
-- Keep it simple: explain that the person who dies will not be able to talk or play with them any more, won't eat or breathe, but that they will always "live" in our memories and our hearts. Talk to your husband, partner, caregiver, and others around your child so you are all on the same page about what you are saying about an afterlife and so on.
-- Be honest with your feelings. By saying that you are really sad and that you may be crying, it allows your children to understand that is okay to be sad as well. Also recognize your children may grieve in an unexpected way, from being happy that Grandma is now with Grandpa in heaven (if he had passed years before) to asking more scientific questions (like what happens to the body, do worms eat it, and so on). They are just processing it in their own way.
-- Younger children may not "get" the finality of death, and that is okay. Be prepared to answer questions maybe weeks and even months later, asking when the person that has died will come and visit. This may bring up tough feelings for you, but remember they do not understand the concept yet. Older kids may think that they can "change" death, like using magical thinking or wishing to have Fluffy the pet cat not be dead anymore. All of these times are chances to talk about death and reassure your child they are safe and okay.
-- Always end conversations about death or dying by telling your children that they are safe and that they can always talk to you about it. It is okay to say you don't really know why people die, but point out that the person or pet that has died had a good life and we were so lucky to have memories and their everlasting love.
Have you had to explain death to your children? What happened when you talked about it with them?