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Friday, September 22, 2017

Talking to Kids about Death

I've been mulling over sharing how my little family dealt with the topic of death this year.  It took me a few months but I'm finally ready.  Earlier this winter my father passed away after a long battle with Alzheimer's.  A battle so long that it encompassed my girl's entire lives.  As a result his death was not a surprise, but something we had prepared for for quite some time.  However, there really is only so much you can plan for, even with an expected eventual death there are unexpected emotions and realities.

My father's decline was experienced for some time, and he was living in a Care Home when he passed.  However, the actual passing happened quickly and with only a little notice.  As a result I had to fly out unexpectedly while they were at school to be there in time to be with him as he left this life.  

When I returned home a few days later I started conversations about what happened, his death and how they felt about it all.  It was a process and I found that my youngest was the most effected, she didn't want me out of her sight for quite awhile after my return.  I had to reassure her frequently and spend extra time with her so that she could feel secure again.

Here's what I did and what I would do differently if I could.

What Helped

  1. Honest communication - I allowed my girls to ask questions and to talk about Grandpa's death when it was comfortable for them.   I purchased a couple books online and borrowed one from the library that dealt with death and grieving.  Although no book is a perfect match they at least offer topics for kids to discuss with you.  You can also talk about what ways you agree or disagree with the book, this may be especially important with your family's beliefs on the afterlife.  
  2. Talking about Highs and Lows - We came up with lists of the good and bad parts of Grandpa passing.  For example a good was that Grandpa had his memory back and was whole, also that he got to be with all of his friends and family that were already in heaven!  A low being that we missed him and wouldn't get to see him anymore.
  3. Reassurance - My youngest had a *really* hard time with being away from me after my dad died.  This is mostly because I left while she was at school, so she didn't get to say goodbye.  But also because she folded that feeling/fear into the permanent goodbye of my dad.  Reassuring her that I'm not going anywhere and that I plan to live a long life was helpful to her security.
What I would do Differently
  1. I would have prepared my girls better the day I flew out.  Either by letting them know that there was a possibility I might have to leave that day, or by leaving them messages.  I was in such a hurry and in the midst of grief that I didn't take the space to think of them.

The time between when my Dad died and his funeral and then burial were all weeks and months apart.  The girls joined me at  Dad's funeral almost a month after he died.  We used that time to prepare the girls by talking about what a funeral/memorial service looks like so that they would know what to expect.  As a result they were pretty comfortable on that day and handled the situation really well. 

Memorial Service/Funeral
What Helped
  1. Describe ahead what a memorial service usually looks like.  Talk about how some people may be laughing at times and smiling, and at other times crying.  That both are normal!  Let them know who will most likely be there and that lots of people will be strangers to them, but were close friends to your loved one.
  2. Include your kids in decisions that they can have some say in such as what they will wear.  We were making our own flower arrangements for the church and my oldest was able to help grandma select the flowers and arrange them.
  3. Go over rules regarding behavior and expectations, especially if this church (or any church) is new to your kids.  Talk about voice level, running, etc.
  4. During the service I had the kids sit with my husband (behind me) so that I could experience my own feelings without them having to respond to or take care of me.  I did let them know ahead that mommy might be sad or cry, but that this is totally normal because I am sad about Grandpa passing.  Also that it's okay if they cry and okay if they don't.

My family waited to bury Dad's ashes until the summer, so it was quite a few months after his memorial.  During the in-between time we talked more about death and I prepared them for the burial.  What it would look like, who would be there and how they could be involved.  

Our situation was a little unique in that Dad was buried in a very small private community cemetery.  As a result we did the actual digging/burying ourselves.  The kids were invited to participate and they both did (happily).  In a more traditional burial you could have your kids place flowers on the grave, or toss flowers on top of a casket.   

We also had a time of remembering Dad where each family member shared a memory of Dad.  The kids were included in this part and were warned ahead so they could prepare. They were given the choice to opt-out, but both of my girls shared something.  Kids could also share a poem, favorite joke or even sing a song.

There is nothing I would do differently with the memorial and the burial.  They were both positive experiences with my girls and I noticed that they were able to process his death as a normal part of life.

We still talk about Grandpa and when I had moments of sadness after his passing I made sure to be honest/open with them.  That way they would normalize sadness and grief as normal reactions to loss.  I let them share how this made them feel and what their hopes were about death ("that mommy lives a long time").

For more information on Dementia 

Talking to Kids about Alzheimer's

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