As the year dies, it is only natural that our thoughts turn to musings on our own mortality. For Catholics, Halloween is not only about pumpkins and trick-or-treating; it is the eve of the Feast of All Saints, followed immediately by the Feast of All Souls, days set aside for us to remember and pray for the dead.
As we get older it becomes harder to ignore the fact that every second that passes brings us that much closer to our own deaths. Children, for whom time seems almost to stand still so that the time between Christmases feels infinite, usually don’t think about the inevitability of death as we do.
But children will encounter death, some sooner than others, and how we prepare them for this and help them deal with it when it comes is important.
There doesn’t have to be some big moment where you sit your kids down and explain death to them. Better for it to be introduced early, before they can really comprehend it, as a natural process. You can start with what your kids encounter as they play–dead insects. If they’ve heard you talking about the fact that an insect is dead from infancy, they’ll always have at least a vague concept of what death is, which you can flesh out later when they have questions. Tell them that the insect got tired and old and its body couldn’t work anymore, so it was time for it to die.
When they ask questions about their own eventual deaths or yours, it’s best to reassure them by saying that they–and you–are still very young and it will be a long time before you die. There’s no need to muddy the waters at this point with discussions of death by accident or illness. Sadly, there will no doubt come a time when you will have to answer those kinds of questions.
My children had their first close encounter with death when my grandmother died. They were 16, 13, 12, six, and three at the time. They knew Mima well so they were definitely affected by her death and I felt they should be a part of it. We told the little ones that, like the insects, Mima was old and her body had worn out, but we also added that she had gone to Heaven to be with God as we all hope to one day. (I personally don’t think that it’s particularly necessary or useful to bring up the concept of Purgatory with little kids right when they are grieving the loss of a loved one.)
We took all the kids with us to the funeral home. The open casket was at the far end of the room and we let the kids decide whether to approach. Lorelei and her cousin Ella, who were three and five at the time, were interested and spent time looking at Mima. William, who was six, did not want to look at her and stayed at the other end of the room. The children also attended the funeral Mass and the graveside service.
It’s very important not to impose your own–or other people’s–expectations or interpretations on the grieving of children. They may not look as upset as you think they should look, but don’t make assumptions. When my dog was hit by a car when I was four, I was very upset, too upset to even talk about it. I will never forget an adult making the comment that it didn’t seem like I cared very much.
So keep in mind that your children may need space to grieve, or they may need for you to draw them out so that they can express their feelings or ask questions. I was very impressed by a friend whose husband died when their son was about ten years old. He wanted to go sit with his friends at the funeral. Some people might have insisted that he sit up front with the family but she gave him the space he needed and allowed him to find comfort with his friends.
Many children’s first experience with death is the loss of a pet. My children experienced this for the first time a couple of years ago, when we had to put our elderly dog to sleep. Lorelei and William accompanied me to the veterinarian and we all supported each other. I was proud of how brave they were and how they comforted our dog through the process, constantly petting him and reassuring him with loving words. When kids lose a pet they will almost certainly ask you if the pet will go to Heaven. The best answer I’ve heard to that question is that when you go to Heaven and want your pet, he will be there.
Like everything else, children will learn more from your actions around death than your words. Do you talk about how you miss those who have died, or do your avoid discussing uncomfortable feelings? Do you pray for those who have died and encourage your children to join in? (That’s when you can explain about Purgatory!) Do you lead by example by attending funerals of those you know whenever possible and encouraging your children to come when appropriate?
My grandfather died when I was 13, and his was the first funeral I ever attended. For years I was uncomfortable with the whole idea of “viewing” the body, and dreaded going to funerals. But forcing myself to attend many out of a sense of duty and obligation over the past several years changed my attitude. In one tragic week several summers ago, a high school friend’s son committed suicide, the father of one of Teddy’s football teammates died in an accident, and the father of one of his classmates committed suicide. I took Teddy to the funeral of one father, and he accompanied me to take food to the family of the other one. Set an example for your children with your actions when death touches you, and encourage their participation, and they will internalize the value of these rituals and will not fear them.