My Father would have turned 76 on the 19th of this month had cancer not taken him four years ago. In an attempt to explain his passing to Noah, who was two at the time, we told him that grandpa had gone to be with God. He seemed to understand and nothing more was said on the matter. Six months later he asked when grandpa was coming back from visiting Jesus.
Experts agree that using the words “die,” “dead” and “dying” are crucial in talking to your child about death. Never under any circumstances should you tell your child that their loved one has gone to sleep. Because each child will react differently it is important to stress that there is no right or wrong way to feel. Some children may ask a lot of questions; others may just listen. To channel their grief some children may want to write or draw, others may want to do some outward form of honoring their loved one, such as running a race or planting a tree.
My first experience with death came at the age of six when our dog, Fiocchi, died. It was the first time I remember hearing my father cry. It was a strange cry, a deep sucking sound as if he were trying to catch his breath. I realized, years later, that it was his emotions revolting against him as he tried to hold them back in an attempt at being strong in front of us. It is my experience that sharing your emotions, at least a little bit, is far more productive than trying to be stoic for your children. Holding back emotions, I have found, only makes the process of grief that much harder. It is important that we show our children that keeping everything bottled up inside is not healthy and that you are not weak because you cry. On the contrary, I believe that you are stronger for it.
We knew my father was going to pass away. He knew he was going to pass away and told us in no uncertain terms that he did not want to see any dour faces around the house. I knew what was coming, I’d witnessed death at 18 when one of my best friends was killed in a car accident. I’d seen his lifeless body on a metal ER table. But no matter what you know, or think you know, you’re never prepared.
We thought we had done a good job explaining to Noah that grandpa was not coming back. We never took into account how literal his thought process was. Therein lies the dilemma of talking to your children about this subject. You have to be upfront and honest but you have to do it in the proper way, you have to listen more than you talk and you need to ask questions so you are not running on assumptions as Erin and I were when we first talked to Noah.
No matter how many books or articles that you read on this subject. No matter how many people that you solicit for advice, in the end you need to forge your own path in talking to your children about death. Being forced to talk to the boys about the death of my father has allowed for more open and frank discussions. It has shown them that people can still miss someone they love years after they are gone, and it helps the boys to show compassion when someone they know loses someone they love. In all of this I take comfort. For though my father is no longer with us he still helps to guide me in teaching the boys the lessons of life.
This first appeared in the Quietly Making Noise Column for the Charlotte News Vol.58 no.15