Figuring Out How to Handle Death of a Loved One

January 8, 2014 Updated: January 8, 2014

Although it’s not something you may want to think about, death is a part of life.

For my husband and I, this was not an easy thing to deal with, particularly I think, because it came much earlier in our children’s lives than either of us was ready for. In addition, we are from two families that handle death very differently.

When my son was 3 years old, his grandfather, whom he was very close with, passed away. I want to say it was unexpected, but it wasn’t really. We knew my father-in-law was sick. We just never realized how sick he was until he was facing his last few days. 

Preparation 

When I did realize that my father-in-law’s days were becoming fewer and fewer, I began to prepare my son. (My daughter had just turned a year old, and I didn’t think she would understand.) 

I repeatedly told my son that Grandpa was very sick. My son, being 3 years old, would ask if it was something he could catch. I reassured him that what his grandfather had was not contagious.

When my father-in-law passed, I wasn’t really sure how to handle it with my son. I scoured the Internet for answers. I knew that if I told him Grandpa had died, there would be a slew of questions, mostly wondering why. 

Some of what I read left me feeling disillusioned—things like “don’t associate death with being sick,” and “don’t associate death with being old.” The idea was that these things may make your child fear illness or worry that other “old” people may die. 

While I’ll agree this sounds good on the surface, I also think it’s not great advice because it takes away the ability of being able to prepare your child for death.

Finding My Own Beliefs 

One of the most helpful things I read led me down a more spiritual path. While I’m not a “Church on Sunday” type of person, I do believe in God, and I do believe in an afterlife. 

Until I had children and had to explain death to them, I didn’t realize how important it was for me to have these beliefs. I don’t want to believe that this world is all there is, and I want my children to always believe there’s something more to look forward to—whether it be on this earth or in heaven (as is my belief).

When my son asked the question, “Why did Grandpa die?” we told him that his job on Earth was done and that God needed his help in Heaven. Not only did this answer offer my son comfort, but I think it gave my husband and me comfort as well.

Pictures and Dreams 

My son also wanted to know if he would be able to talk to his grandpa or see him anymore. I told him that he would only be able to see his grandfather in pictures and in dreams. I also informed him that he could still talk to Grandpa—he just might not hear him answering. 

We printed out two copies of a picture of my son with his grandpa and put each one in a frame. We one gave to my son, and we placed the other in the casket with my father-in-law. I told my son that whenever he misses Grandpa or wants to talk to him, he should take that picture and talk to it, and Grandpa would hear him. 

Another thing I told my son was that he can still see Grandpa in his dreams when he’s sleeping at night. And I did not just tell him this—I believe this. 

As a college student when my own grandmother died, I can vividly recall having many dreams where my grandmother was present. Most vividly, I remember her exit from my dreams. I remember her telling me, “I have to leave now.” It was several years before my grandmother ever visited me in a dream again.

My son frequently used to have dreams about my father-in-law, but recently there have been weeks and weeks without a visit. 

Then two summers ago, my husband became ill and ended up in the hospital for a couple nights. I told my son that his dad was away for work because I saw no reason to make him worry (and he is a worrier). 

The next morning my son told me, “Grandpa came for a little while last night just to check on me. He said he had to leave to go be with Daddy, though. He said Daddy needed him right now.” 

It’s stories like this that will have me holding on to my spiritual side and taking great comfort in it.

Recommendations 

Regardless of your beliefs, Caring.com has a great article on their website offering sound advice for helping your child cope with the death of a loved one.

“8 Ways to Prepare Your Young Child for a Grandparent’s Death” discusses how to talk openly about death in advance, create legacy projects, and determine when your child might actually need to see a psychologist or other professional because they just aren’t handling the news in a healthy manner.

The next thing you may want to think about when teaching your children about death is whether to bring them to the services that accompany the person’s passing.

In the end, when my father-in-law died, my husband won out, and my son did not attend the wake or the funeral. To this day, my son asks why he couldn’t go. 

Fast-forward to the present, and we just recently had to bury my husband’s grandmother. This time, we opted to bring both of our children to the wake on one of the afternoons.

It was an extremely positive learning experience. I was able to explain the rituals and the idea of taking the opportunity to say good-bye to the person who died. 

My son was in pure amazement, and his innocence as he repeatedly visited my grandmother-in-law’s body as it lay in the casket caught the eyes of many. His curiosity and love for his great-grandmother brought smiles to otherwise grieving faces.

Looking back, I think the most important thing is to be honest with your children when it comes to death. Teach them what you believe. Remind them that part of life is eventually dying. Remind them that both you and your children have many years ahead of you to grow and learn on this earth.

Eco18 is a collective of creative-writing individuals from different backgrounds with a common goal—to live a healthier, more natural lifestyle. Their combined expertise, humor, and opinions explore green and sustainable in a practical, fun way. www.eco18.com

Recommended