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Teaching My Child About Death

After I got the news from Zim of Loveness’s passing on Tuesday morning, I knew that we were going to have to tell Ava and that it was going to be very hard to do. How do you explain to a 3 year old that one of the people they love most in the world is dead? I knew it would be a very difficult concept to grasp and wanted to do it right for her. I was also very emotional and afraid of making an already difficult situation even worse for Ava by not handling the news right with her so I went in search of information and found this great article: How to talk to preschoolers about death.

When Ava got home from school, I took her to my room, we sat on my bed and she immediately asked me why I was so sad and so I explained to her that sometimes, when someone is very sick, their body gets too weak to fight and they die. The instant the words were out of my mouth, I saw in her eyes that there was a flickering of understanding there. The look in her eyes will stay with me forever. It flashed before me and before I think she could even fully grasp the concept, it was gone. I explained to her that Loveness would not be coming back because she was dead and through my tears told her that it was ok to be sad and to cry because we loved Loveness, she was part of our family and we would always miss her.  Ava had lots of questions, why was her body to weak to fight, why did she die, was she in heaven, when would we see her again?

I did my best to answer all her questions and she quickly seemed to lose interest in the subject and went off in search of Eva, our new nanny who had only started the previous day but whom I can already see will be a perfect fit into our family, after I collapsed on hearing of Loveness’s death, she had helped me up, brought me tissues, held me and made me sweet tea when I couldn’t stop shaking and my body was wracked with the most bizarre tremors I can only assume were from shock.

Less than 10 minutes later, Ava wet her pants, for the first time in more than a year. Thankfully I had read the article so I knew this was a sign of her trying to deal with her grief. The article gave some great tips and insights:

Kids this age react to death in a variety of ways. Don’t be surprised if your child becomes clingy, regresses in toilet training, reverts to baby talk, or suddenly balks at going to her familiar preschool. After all, her daily routines may have been interrupted, she’s struggling to understand why the adults around her are so sad, and the world may suddenly seem ominous to her in a way that it hadn’t before.

On the other hand, she may not show any reaction to the death at all, or her responses may be intermittent, mixed in with her usual cheerfulness and play.

This is normal, too. Children process grief in bite-sized chunks, not all at once. And many delay grieving until they feel it’s safe to let those feelings out — a process that could take months or even years, particularly if they’ve lost a parent or a sibling.

Your preschooler may also engage in behaviors that seem odd to you, such as playing dead. This too is normal, even if it strikes you as morbid, so don’t discourage this important way for her to work through her feelings about death.

Express your own emotions. Grieving is an important part of healing, for both children and adults. Don’t frighten your child with excessive grief, but don’t make the subject off-limits, either.

Explain that grownups need to cry sometimes, too, and that you feel sad because you miss Grandma. Your preschooler is keenly aware of changes in your mood, and she’ll be even more worried if she senses that something is wrong but that you’re trying to hide it.

Avoid euphemisms. Common adult phrases for death — “resting in peace,” “in eternal sleep” — are confusing for a young child, so don’t say that Grandpa is “sleeping” or “has gone away.” Your preschooler may worry that going to bed at night means she’ll die, too, or that if you leave for the office or the store, you won’t come back.

State the reasons for the death as simply as possible: “Grandpa was very, very old and his body couldn’t work anymore.” If Grandpa was sick before he died, be sure to reassure your child that if she gets sick from a cold or flu, it doesn’t mean she’ll die. Explain that there are different ways people get sick, and that we recover from minor illnesses like the ones your child usually has.

Be prepared for a variety of reactions. Children not only feel sorrow over the death of a loved one, they may also feel guilt or anger. Reassure your preschooler that nothing she said or did caused the death, and don’t be surprised if she expresses anger toward you, the doctors and nurses, or even the deceased.

Also expect that she may have tantrums more often, either as a way to get her own sadness out (though the tantrum may appear to be about something else) or as a reaction to the tension and sadness in your household.

Expect the subject to come up repeatedly. Be ready to field the same questions from your child over and over again, since understanding the permanence of death is a struggle for her.

She’s also likely to come up with new questions as her awareness of death and her cognitive skills grow, grief counselors say. Don’t worry that you didn’t explain the death adequately the first time — your child’s ongoing questions are normal. Just keep answering them as patiently as you can.

Memorialize the deceased. Children need concrete ways to mourn the death of a loved one. Your preschooler may not be ready to attend a funeral (particularly an open-casket wake), but she can participate in memorial services in whatever ways she might feel comfortable. She can light a candle at home, sing a song, draw a picture, or take part in some other ritual observance.

Ava’s grief has morphed and changed over the course of the week. She has gone from talking a lot about Loveness’s death, her school teacher has also mentioned that she had brought it up at school a few times, and asking a lot of questions about Loveness, to absolute anger and denial. When she asks me questions now about Loveness’s death and I answer her openly and honestly, she gets very angry. Shouting & tearful, waving her hands in her face and telling me Loveness is NOT dead, that she is here on earth and that the Dr’s are going to make her better and then she is coming back. I keep reassuring her that its ok to cry and to be sad but that Loveness really is dead and she isn’t coming back. And so we keep going.

Loveness’s funeral was held in the village of her birth in Zim yesterday so we couldn’t be there. I asked Ava if she wanted to do something special for Loveness to show her how much we love and miss her and we decided to do a balloon release ceremony yesterday. We spoke about Loveness and what she means to us and how much we love and miss her and Ava declared that we were sending balloons up to heaven for her to keep so that she would know how much we loved her.

Balloon Ceremony

 

Straight after all 8 of the balloons were released (one balloon for every year she’d been with us) Ava stormed inside and again became tearful and clingy and angry and shouting that Loveness was not dead.

I think we have a long road ahead of us. While our hearts are still broken, Walter and I have swung between utter dispair and disbelief, to a place of acceptance, while Ava still seems to be trapped in the anger and denial phase of her grief.

Death is part of life I guess, but I feel like having to explain Loveness’s death to Ava has forced me to rob her little bit of her childhood innocence and I hate it!

Balloon Ceremony 1

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8 Comments

  • Reply http://www.gaywarfare.blogspot.com/

    I am sorry for your loss. The balloon ceremony was such a beautiful way of memorializing Loveness’ passing and I am sure Ava will make sense of this in her young mind over time. It is always sad when we lose someone who has meant so much to us and played such an important role in our lives. My mom passed away seven years ago and every year on the day of her passing we do our own floating Chinese lantern ceremony. Even though she left a gap in my life and I still miss her, she will always live in my heart.

    October 27, 2013 at 10:17 am
  • Reply Ailsa Porter

    What a difficult and sad time for you all!

    October 27, 2013 at 10:20 am
  • Reply Rene

    So difficult to explain it to children. My now 5 year old had an understanding of death after my brother died, and she’s been to 2 funerals as well. But then she saw some cartoon with a dead person coming back to life, and that just confused her. So she keeps on talking about when they’re coming back to life again.

    October 28, 2013 at 11:42 am
  • Reply cat@jugglingact

    Good on you for handling it so well with Ava.

    October 29, 2013 at 11:59 am
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