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Talking to Children About Death

While grieving a sudden loss, I was intrigued by my children's reactions. They made bold statements, asked direct questions and gently wept. The healing began with family, written letters and laughter.

The experience of losing someone is painful, emotional and difficult. We can feel the hurt or attempt to suppress it while wearing a stoic brow. Children, on the other hand, haven’t perfected the arts of avoidance or submission. Their emotions are candid, real and unrehearsed.

Our family recently experienced a tragic loss as Phillip, our 25-year-old cousin, passed away. After the initial shock, the challenge of telling our children was staring us in the face. We couldn’t avoid it. No more whispered excuses of, “We’ll tell them after dinner,” or “after I run a few errands.”

The only personal loss our children had experienced was the passing of a family dog two years ago. The following days were filled with random outbursts of tears and frank questions. It was an experience I didn’t want to relive.

Our deceased, overweight golden retriever was no comparison to Phillip. Our kids knew him and loved him. They shared many meals with Phillip and learned a few questionable habits topped with colorful vocabulary. He enjoyed watching lame Disney flicks with all the cousins. He laughed the hardest and burped the loudest. He had a kindred spirit with a mischievous nature and a fierce love of family.

How do we tell them? How much do we tell them? We decided to gather and sit in a comfortable room, away from distractions and tell them honestly.

My husband and I were surprised with their reaction. There was nothing but silence and blank stares at the wall. An occasional tear was shed. The evening continued with an awkward normalcy. We would frequently ask how they were doing. Our eyes were met with obvious signs of loss.

The next few days were filled with travel via planes, trains and automobiles. Family members were emerging from distant lands and local toll routes. After a six-hour car ride, we arrived with uncertainty and unsettled nerves.

Throughout the wake and funeral service, I couldn’t help but observe the many children among our large family. It was interesting watching the variety of coping methods. From age 4 to age 15, some would hold their heads low, burying their eyes with overgrown bangs. Some were curious about Phillip’s body in the casket, questioning the validity of his death. Some cried in their mothers’ laps. One child questioned, “Why did God kill Phillip?” This was a powerful, yet understandable query. We found the simpler the answer was, the easier it was accepted.

The night before the funeral, the children decided to write letters to Phillip. They each wrote about their favorite “Phil story.” After the last set of teeth was brushed, I noticed the letters in the back bedroom. Through their eyes, I read stories of Phillip eating 51 buffalo wings, watching him get shot in the butt with a BB gun and the funny faces he used to make.  

The letters were gathered and placed in Phillip’s casket. It was comforting to the children that their letters were with him.

It was painful seeing the kids feel such a tremendous loss. Instinctively, we want to shelter and protect them. But how to deal with death, the experience and the aftermath, are also important life lessons. With all the warm tears and aching hearts, they saw their family as constant, loving unconditionally.  

With tears come laughter – and lots of it. Late nights were spent on back porches, laughing about memories of Phillip and his humorous predicaments and habits. Stomach-grabbing laughter was a welcome relief that never felt inappropriate. It was a natural and much needed remedy.

When life gets messy, I thumb through a favorite book. Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays With Morrie gives simple and heartfelt advice. It provides comfort when one can’t find it elsewhere.

"If you don't have the support and love and caring and concern that you get from a family, you don't have much at all. Love is so supremely important." – Morrie Schwartz.

Scott Thompson May 27, 2011 at 09:07 PM
I'm with Wendy!
Susi May 28, 2011 at 12:43 AM
Eyes are a bit blurry. Brings back some sweet losses. Thanks.
Sherry Blandin May 28, 2011 at 10:03 PM
Your mother could not have said it better! Love, Momma Sherry
Judy Edwards May 30, 2011 at 01:16 PM
You are like an angel with a pen.--Helping us understand the world we live in.
Ron Peterson May 30, 2011 at 05:17 PM
Cami: The idea of having children write letters is a terrific way to have them do something positive, have an impact instead of just dealing with it.

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