Much of our behavior in adult life is based on the examples we were exposed to as children. Many of these examples were backed up with admonitions, directions and information that were put forth as “truth, ” or the way it really is. This information becomes emblazoned on the walls of our minds.
In a more subtle way, we usually learn about dying, death, and grieving more by watching what others do and less about what they say. Regrettably, this occurs because adults say less about these subjects and try not to show their true feelings around children. Therefore, children are educated about death from television, songs, adult silence, and movies in a second class way.
How can we break the cycle? By learning how to be positive adult grief models. Here is the way to start.
1. Examine the beliefs about death that have been passed down to you. Also ask yourself what you learned from your very first experience with death. Were you taught that crying is a sign of weakness, death is always bad, that the less you speak about death the better, that you need to find closure and let go of the deceased, that children should never go to a wake or funeral, or that you should grieve only in private?
Work toward changing such beliefs to help you adapt to the many loss experiences that are a part of every life. It may mean working toward changing the way you look at a death experience you had as a child. Seek input from knowledgeable professionals if some of your past experiences still cause much anxiety.
2. Next pick up some information from your local hospice, church, library, or grief support group, written by an authority, which recommends ways to look at death and bereavement based on research and the latest suggested practices. Become familiar with them so that you are able to answer some of the basic questions children often ask (like what is death?). Also, consider attending a public lecture on death or bereavement or consulting grief websites for an update.
3. At the teachable moment, talk to your children about death, the importance of expressing emotions, and the damage caused by suppressing them. Do this before there is a death in the family and all of the emotion surfaces. Emphasize that crying is not a female or male response, it is a normal human response. And then, most importantly, don’t feel bad about letting your children see you cry, especially if you are a male. Emphasize that crying is coping.
4. Start talking about death, when the subject naturally comes up, in a tone and manner that treats the topic as a part of life—not apart from life. It is an integral part of our existence and has much to teach about the quality of life we should be striving to live. It is often argued that the quality of life is affected by one’s awareness of death. Use the words death and die, not euphemisms like lost, passed away, he’s sleeping, or expired.
5. Teach that although everyone dies, love never dies. We will always remember and love the person who dies. We can always have a relationship with him/her based on memory, tradition, and celebrating a life that has been lived. He/ she will always be alive in our hearts.
6. Allow children to go to the funeral and visit the cemetery as early as seven years-old (as early as three, sometimes younger, if the death is a parent). Always invite, never force participation. Again, if visits can be done before a death occurs it can be very useful. Always prepare the child for what they will see. Explain who will be there, where the deceased will be, and that the funeral is the place where you get to say goodbye to the person who died. In the cemetery visit, explain the purpose of the gravestones and burial, and what the cemetery will look like.
7. Always remember that death is another opportunity in which family members can come close together, help each other, express love and caring, and teach children the value of community. Make every effort, as difficult as it may be, not to exclude children from these important family events. Great parent-child trust can be generated. They can learn that everyone grieves differently and you will learn that children grieve sporadically, and cannot sustain our form of adult grief.
In summary, the more you can guide children and be sensitive their need to be recognized as significant mourners, all the more you will be preparing them for healthy ways of looking at bereavement and death. They will always need much guidance on matters such as what is death, how to deal with their secondary losses, what to do if they sense the presence of the deceased, and how the death of a loved one changes the environment and survivors.
This means, of course, that we all need to become more knowledgeable about these issues and how to speak to children about them. Therefore, resolve your own death issues first, learn what children need to know, and then wait for an opportunity to calmly introduce the topic. You will be helping children on an emotional level more than you can ever imagine.
Dr. LaGrand is a grief counselor and the author of eight books, the most recent, the popular Love Lives On: Learning from the Extraordinary Encounters of the Bereaved. He is known world-wide for his research on the Extraordinary Experiences of the bereaved (after-death communication phenomena) and is one of the founders of Hospice of the St. Lawrence Valley, Inc. His free monthly ezine website is http://www.extraordinarygriefexperiences.com.