The Daily Review Atlas)
As parents we teach our children a lot of things; how to talk, share, use the potty and deal with grief. In every decision we make, every word we speak and every reaction we have, we are directly, and simultaneously inadvertently, teaching our children how to deal with and react to life. This is why we must be very careful during times of tragedy and death.
When in mourning it can be very difficult to think outside of your own personal feelings of loss and sadness. However, as parents we must take into consideration how large of an impression our reactions will leave on our children and how much influence our words carry. No matter how difficult, the absolute best thing grownups can do is be age appropriately honest with kids. Even, and most especially, when it is the hardest to do so.
Do you remember how highly you thought of your parents when you were young? In a child's eye, moms and dads are supernaturally strong. This is why it can be a very confusing time for children when they see their parent crying. You may be tempted but don't hide your tears. Instead, reassure your child that you are fine but explain that thinking of your loved one makes you feel sad. It's not harmful for children to see their parents cry rather it can be dangerous to create a false reality. Children, even infants, can pick up when something is not right and a parent may inadvertently communicate to the child that there is something shameful about displaying one's feelings.
In times of loss, it is very common for children to begin to wonder if other people in their life will die too. This may be particularly true if the death was sudden and not anticipated. You should expect your children to ask you if you, or they, will die. Explain to your child, on their level of understanding, that even though accidents happen you are planning on being around for a very long time. Reassure the unsure child that no matter what happens, all of their needs will be met. Comfort them and tell them someone will always be there to give them all the love and care they will need.
When it comes to the details of death, kids should be on a need-to-know basis. Parents should understand that children don't need to know all the same grown-up, medical details you need. It's often our instinct to have a formal sit down to deliver bad news but consider the alternative. Consider talking about the subject during your daily routines and dinner conversations. For young children, a stiff and formal sit-down can be uncomfortable and scary. Instead state the facts as simply and age appropriately as possible and follow your child's lead. If, after sharing the news, they need more details than give it. If they don't desire more information don't worry that they've not grasped the heftiness of the news. In time they will. And you can be sure to offer comfort when that day does come.Of course everyone deals with the idea of death and after-life according to their own convictions and religious beliefs however, be very wise in what words you choose during your explanations. For example, if you tell your child "Grandpa fell asleep and now we'll never see him again" there is a very good chance you're inviting sleep problems in your youngster. Their immature brain will rationalize, "If Grandpa never came back after falling asleep, maybe I will too".
Likewise, telling a child that God takes "good people" can make them wonder if He will take them when they are "good". We don't want our children to worry about being taken to heaven for good behavior. Remember to explain the loss in the simplest and most truthful way possible. And if you don't know what to say, that's ok too. Just be honest.
Attending funerals can be very taxing on young children. The raw emotion they witness can be very disturbing. Tell them prior to the service what they might expect. Remind them that it's ok to be sad and it's ok to cry because when we miss someone we loved we feel sad. Have conversations informing your son or daughter about what they can expect. Explain that people may be crying, laughing, or talking. Share specifics like what the room will be like, where the coffin will be and what they may or may not want to do. But I encourage you to be very sensitive to your child's cues. If they don't feel sad don't make them feel like they should be and likewise, if you recognize they are overwhelmed with the emotion of the event be sure to offer lots of comfort.
Finally, a family should spend time remembering the relationship with the lost one. This often brings the closure that young children need. No matter how painful for the adult, it is so important to talk about the good times, go through pictures and discuss memories as the children's interest indicates.
Most importantly, receive each new day as a gift. In this age of terrorism and tragedy, no one is guaranteed a tomorrow. I implore you not to waste one more moment in fear or discord. In as much as it is possible, live in peace with one another. Take time everyday to play with and love on your children. Why? Because I'm the mom and I said so! That's why!
Stephanie is a certified Parent Educator for the Monmouth-Roseville CUSD #238 and a mother to five children. She blogs at www.stephaniesikorski.blogspot.com and can be reached for comment or consultation at email@example.com.