It wasn't until the day of her funeral that I learned of my beloved grandmother's death. That morning, my parents woke my sister and me (12 and 10, respectively) to break the news and get us ready to go. Although generally sensitive and loving, my parents regarded death as most people did in those days, not a topic for children.
Thankfully, the taboo has lifted as views on dealing with children and death change. The fact is, most children experience loss early in life. Among preschoolers, the loss of grandparents and pets are the most frequent deaths faced. How can you help your child through bereavement?
Parents often question whether a young child who loses a parent or grandparent should see the body or attend the funeral. In her book The Grieving Child: A Parent's Guide, author Helen Fitzgerald explains that funerals make a death real and help move us toward accepting reality.
If there's a supportive adult available and the child doesn't voice strong objections, there is no reason why a young child can't attend the funeral. Talk first about the service, the hearse, the casket and how the body will look. Let her choose a meaningful item to bury with her loved one.
Many people avoid taking children to the cemetery when, in reality, a cemetery visit provides a comforting opportunity to "visit" the deceased. Combine the visit with a stop at one of your child's favorite places. Let her unwind, share memories or express sadness.
"This idea of not wanting to upset kids is silly," says Elizabeth Kuh, a child and adolescent psychiatrist for children and adolescents in Bala Cynwyd, Pa. "The truth is, death is incredibly painful. But children are much more resilient than we allow for."
The child who isn't allowed to go to his father's funeral or who doesn't visit his grave may feel left out and resentful later. As I grew up and thought about my grandmother's funeral, I recognized that my mother was so grief-stricken that she wasn't capable of consoling my sister and me that morning.
When Mom was dying, I made certain to include my sons every step of the way. One of them insisted on being a pallbearer. Quite an undertaking for an 11-year-old but proof children will deal with death in their own way, given the opportunity.
Advice and facts:
* Young children often feel guilty: Assure your child that angry thoughts don't make people die.
* Encourage your child to identify and express feelings: Use puppets, storytelling, or other ways to get your child to talk.
* Be available for constant discussions throughout the mourning process.
* Seek psychotherapy or a bereavement group if your child exhibits symptoms of distress for six months or longer.
* Help your child memorialize the loved one: Plant a garden, do volunteer work, or contribute to a charity.