Letting Children Share in Grief
AT THEIR LEVEL Sesame Workshop has videos that parents can watch with preschoolers to help them discuss death.
MOURNING TOGETHER David Horst, with his daughter, Grace,
STRENGTH IN NUMBERS Camp Erin in Palm Desert, Calif., a grief camp, offers children a place to discuss death
By CATHERINE SAINT LOUIS
Published: September 19, 2012
A FEW decades ago, children often didn’t attend funerals. The thinking was that they should be sheltered from the pain of losing a loved one. And as Americans started living longer, the need to even broach the subject of death was delayed because many grandparents survived deep into their golden years.
But recently, the opposite view — that children should be as involved in the grieving process as adults are — has been taking hold, reflecting an increasingly common belief that children are better off when their grief is acknowledged and they are allowed to mourn in the company of relatives and peers.
Grief centers for children are one example: there are now more than 300 of these nonprofit counseling centers, up from 204 in 2002. And Donna Schuurman, the executive director of the Dougy Center for Grieving Children and Families in Portland, Ore., which helped establish these centers, estimated that there are at least 150 more peer-to-peer programs nationwide that serve a similar function. The rise of hospice care, which provides bereavement services for relatives, including children, has also played a role, as have grief camps for children.
“Twenty-five years ago, children were ‘invisible grievers,’ ” said Vicky Ott, executive director of Fernside, a nonprofit center in Cincinnati that served 1,300 children and adults last year. There was an attitude, she said, that they “are resilient, they will bounce back, we don’t need to talk to them about death. I think that’s changed a lot.”
David Horst’s experience bears that out. When his wife, Jennifer, was dying of leukemia in 2010, hospice workers encouraged him to prepare his children for her death. Two months before she died, Mr. Horst, an antiques dealer in Lebanon, Pa., who is now 40, began reading his 5- and 6-year-old books like “Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children.” He didn’t hesitate to cry in front of them — in fact, he did it “all the time,” he said. And he took them to a support group at Hospice and Community Care in Lancaster, Pa.
Without the encouragement of the hospice workers, he would never have prepared his children that way, Mr. Horst said. But he came to believe that avoiding the subject would have been a mistake. “In the long run, it will be detrimental to the kids,” said Mr. Horst, who recently created a foundation in his wife’s honor. “You have to face it head-on.”
On the day of the burial, while he was sitting at his wife’s grave with his son on his lap, his son said: “You know, Dad, Mom will never suffer anymore, right? The cancer is gone.” That’s when Mr. Horst said he understood that his son had absorbed what he had been trying to communicate to him.
“I lost it,” he said. “They got all the suffering she was going through, or at least he did, and that now it’s over. That’s amazing.”
TRYING to protect children from the pain of the death of a relative can actually make matters worse, some experts say. Children pick up “on the message the adults give verbally and nonverbally to ‘not go there,’ ” said Patti Anewalt, a grief counselor at Hospice and Community Care. “As a result, kids are extremely anxious.”
In contrast, a century or more ago, when illness, death and grief all took place at home, children learned to regard them as a natural part of life, said Alan Wolfelt, a psychologist who runs the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colo., which has trained a generation of grief counselors. “We included children in the experience because someone was dying in your home, next door or across the street,” he said.
But America has since become a “mourning avoidant” culture, he added, in part because many 40- and 50-year-olds still have living parents. And that longevity, he wrote in an e-mail, has “resulted in a tendency to overprotect children from the realities of grief and loss.” Indeed, death is such a foreign concept to some families, he said, that he has been told, “We just don’t do death.”
Grief camps like Camp Erin or Comfort Zone Camp, however, offer children a place where they can talk about a dead relative without feeling self-conscious or worrying about making schoolmates squeamish. And free support groups offered by nonprofit organizations like the Dougy Center and Fernside have helped to make grief more acceptable. As J. William Worden, a psychologist and one of the key investigators on the 1986 Harvard Child Bereavement Study, said, “The value of bereavement programs for kids is it helps them feel less ‘odd person out.’ ”
FOR the last four years, Jerry Goldsmith, a volunteer at New Hope for Kids, a grief center in Maitland, Fla., has listened to children ages 7 to 12 talk about parents and siblings they have lost. He has watched them create memory boxes in their relatives’ honor, or take out their frustration in the “hurricane room,” which is equipped with a boxing bag.
It has been a bittersweet experience for Mr. Goldsmith, a retired headhunter for financial services executives, because he lost his father to a heart attack in 1952, when he was 9. And for more than 20 years, he didn’t cry, he said. Now Mr. Goldsmith can’t help but wonder, he said, “How would my life have been different if I had some of today’s resources?”
Trying to avoid dealing with the loss of his father nearly kept him from becoming one, he added. “I was not going to get that close to anyone,” he said. And while he eventually had three children, he said, “I would have loved the opportunity to have fully grieved and started the healing process at age 9 instead of 28,” when he married.
In peer support groups, available for children ages 3 to 18, adults encourage conversation between children and let them mourn as they wish, even if that means recreating a burial with mini-coffins. That’s helpful because, as Ms. Schuurman of the Dougy Center noted, “kids are resilient, but they are not resilient in a vacuum. Kids do better when they see, ‘Someone understands what I’m going through.’ ”
But peer support groups are not therapy. And if a child isn’t gradually improving, it might be worth having the child evaluated by a mental health professional, said Dr. Judith Cohen, a psychiatry professor at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh. Particularly after a month or two, she said, “if they are still struggling with the way the person died, rather than the fact the person died.”
Hospice centers are a good place to get help early on. They not only focus on the needs of dying patients, but also offer bereavement services for up to a year after the patient’s death.
In 2010, 1.6 million patients received hospice care in the United States, up from 25,000 in 1982, when the Medicare hospice benefit was created. It used to be that after a death, children’s needs were not addressed, said J. Donald Schumacher, the president of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. “But now they are identified as part of the care plan in hospice, and their needs are attended to immediately during hospice.”
Moreover, many funeral directors, influenced by grief experts like Rabbi Earl Grollman and Dr. Wolfelt, now have explicit conversations with parents about whether children will attend services. Some have set up children’s lounges to make it clear that children are welcome, and they distribute pamphlets with advice for parents, like “confirm that it’s all right to be sad and to cry.”
Bob Rosson, president-elect of the National Funeral Directors Association and the director of the Waller Funeral Home in Oxford, Miss., said that he tells those who are reluctant to bring their children: “If you deny them the chance to come to a funeral service, you don’t have the option of coming back next week and doing it right.”
Other funeral directors, like Ashley Cozine at Broadway Mortuary in Wichita, Kan., offer tours of the facilities for children, in an effort to demystify death. Scott Macy, a funeral director at Hultgren Funeral Home in Wheaton, Ill., said his hope was that this would encourage discussion between parents and children. “An atmosphere of openness is necessary for the next generation to move forward appropriately in dealing with death,” Mr. Macy said. “We’re hoping we are setting a bit of example by offering a tour that says: ‘Hey, death is a part of life. Everyone will have to deal with it.’ ”
A couple of years ago, Sarah Anderson, 52, a mother of two, organized a tour of the Broadway Mortuary for about 30 elementary-school children. “It was an opportunity for them to learn about death in a nonemotional, factual way,” she said. “Then if they do have to experience it, it won’t be as overpowering.” In a sign of changing times, not one of the parents declined to sign the permission slip.
By contrast, in 1982, when the Dougy Center opened, the reaction among many was not positive. Beverly Chappell, a founder, said people asked, “Why would you want to cram death down kids’ throats, for crying out loud?”
As Rabbi Grollman, 87, who wrote the influential 1967 book “Explaining Death to Children,” said, “Thirty years ago, there was the idea that children couldn’t understand.” But now, after a death in the family, many parents allow children to see their grief, he added. “We try to avoid fairy tales and half-truths.”
Still, for many parents, death is an overwhelming experience, one that is difficult to discuss with their children.
Pamela Gabbay, director of three Mourning Star centers, who also oversees a Camp Erin in Palm Desert, Calif., said she recently had a call from a mother in despair. A few months earlier, the woman’s husband, a frequent traveler, had died in a car accident while he was on a trip, and she had not yet told her children. Ms. Gabbay, who helped her find the words to tell them, said that often people haven’t been forced to talk about death, “because nobody significant in their life has died.”
And unlike the sex talk, the death talk hasn’t been enshrined in the book of parenting musts. Andy McNiel, the first executive director of the National Alliance for Grieving Children, a network for bereavement professionals and volunteers, said, “We don’t give them honest information,” in part because of a sincere desire to protect our children.
But even if a child in kindergarten is excluded from a grandfather’s funeral, or a teenager isn’t told that a mother died by suicide, they often know more than their parents give them credit for. And as Mr. McNiel said he often asks parents, “If they already know the reality of what’s going on, would you prefer they deal with it with you — or alone?”
How to Break Bad News
ALAN WOLFELT, a grief counselor and author of dozens of books about loss, likes to say, “Anyone old enough to love is old enough to grieve.”
But what’s the best way for grieving parents to explain to children that their father or grandmother is gone? It’s not easy, especially considering that parents are inclined to protect children from pain of any kind, let alone the ultimate type. A few tips from experts:
Prepare children for what they’ll see at funerals, said Donna Schuurman, the executive director of the Dougy Center for Grieving Children and Families in Portland, Ore., particularly if there’s going to be an open coffin. And make sure to explain why rituals are important. Tell them that it’s a ceremony where “friends and family come together,” she said, and “we’ll be sad, we’ll show pictures of Daddy.”
Avoid confusing euphemisms like “Grandma passed away” or “Mom went to sleep,” lest a child fear bedtime. Sesame Workshop has videos that parents can watch with preschoolers to help them grasp the permanence of death. (One features Elmo wanting to call his dead uncle.) Experts also suggest offering an explanation like this: “When a person dies, his or her body stops working. The heart stops beating and the body stops moving, eating and breathing.”
What if your children ask whether you could die? One answer recommended by Rabbi Earl Grollman, a pioneer in the field of death and dying, is to tell them that “anyone can die at any time,” but “I’m healthy and I expect to live a long, long time.”
If a loved one died by suicide or was killed, straight talk can be especially difficult. But it is still necessary, said Andy McNiel, the executive director of the National Alliance for Grieving Children. He asks parents, “Can you guarantee that your child will never find out the truth for the rest of their life?” And invariably, he said, “I’ve never had anyone say, ‘I can keep that truth.’ ”
Take the child’s age into consideration, use straightforward language and let the child’s questions guide the discussion. As Rabbi Grollman suggests: “Find out what a child wants to know and when he or she wants to know it. I wouldn’t rush in.”
Comments following the Article:
Ron from Georgia Augusta, GA . . . . . . . . .. My father died of cancer in 1962 when I was 8. My entire life I have regretted that at that time, society did not discuss or prepare people for death. There was no hospice and support did not exist for the family. I am so glad to see that children are being brought into the discussion. We will be emotionally better for it. What on Earth do you do when someone dies by Trevor Romain is an excellent book for elementary school children who are experiencing a death in their family or community.
JMR California . . . . . . . . .. In the 1950s, when I was in my early teens, my younger brother died in a freak accident which I witnessed. I was not allowed to go to the funeral..His name was never spoken again and any attempt to speak about him with my parents was met with stony silence. For many years afterwards I had periods of depression and periods of wild, almost destructive behavior. It was only once I reached my forties that I sat my parents down and insisted on talking about his death and how it had affected my life. I was astonished to find that my parents claimed that they had no idea how much his death had affected me because as they said, I was "only a child" when it happened and they thought I would "just forget". I am very glad that times have changed.
Karen Flyer Long Island, NY . . . . . . . . .. As Executive Director for COPE, a grief and healing organization dedicated to helping parents, siblings and families living with the loss of a child, I applaud Ms, Saint Louis for bringing this issue of children and grief out into the open. COPE offers bereavement support groups for young children, teens and adult siblings (as well as parents) mourning the loss of a sibling (child), and offers a free, weekend bereavement camp called Camp Erin New York City for children ages 6-17 dealing with any major loss. I lost my father to suicide when I was 6 years old, and we did not have resources such as COPE's and other bereavement organization's back then. Had I dealt with my grief in a productive fashion, perhaps I could have avoided the depression, eating disorder, and alcohol abuse that plagued my adolescence. For more information about COPE, please visit www.copefoundation.org or contact me at email@example.com. For information about Camp Erin, please contact Ann Fuchs at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anne new york . . . . . . . . .. I am sorry to have to say that most of what was justified as "protecting" the children from loss was actually merely parents' protecting themselves from having to witness their children's grief. They told themselves that if they didn't involve the kids in the grieving process, then the children would not grieve. In fact they just found the thought of having to witness their children's grief, and being unable to "fix it" , too unbearable, so they lied to themselves and said if I don't see the kids grieving, then it must not be happening. Obviously all this accomplished was to give the parents an excuse for not witnessing their childrens' grief, while imposing the unbearable burden of isolation on the bereaved children, at the very time that the children were most in need of love and support.
A. McTigue Petaluma CA . . . . . . . . .. I have walked this walk with children -- I so believe in what Ms. Saint Louis is recommending. Let me steer readers to another really straightforward writer on this topic, Maggie Callanan, a hospice nurse who also writers. O Magazine quotes her this month with advice on "How to Say Goodbye to a Loved One" and her book "Final Gifts" is terrific. I don't know Ms. Callanan -- I'm offering this simply because I'm a fan. Thank you for opening doors to these "difficult" topics. But dying, in my view, is a thing we, the living do. It's literally a part of life. Death, the beyond, I have no idea what or why or how. But the dying, we do, and we can do together cued by the spirit, the desires of those who are passing from us.
Lainey NYC . . . . . . . . .. It's very important, I think, to follow your instincts about your own child(ren). What may be the right thing for one could be disastrous for another. My son was ten and awakened by my frantic screams to the 911 operator when his dad had a fatal heart attack. Did he want to see his father before the casket was closed? No. Did he want to help plan the funeral? Yes. Did he want his friends at the funeral? No. I tried to let him and his behavior be my guide. Nine years later, so far so good and I hope I made good decisions. What I would recommend to parents who find themselves in these sad circumstances is to be careful not to attribute everything to the loss of the other parent. Some things are developmental or have other causes. And if they're eating, sleeping and doing well at school and with their friends, that's a good thing---I wouldn't be alarmed about repressed grief; kids grieve in their own way in their own time. They need to process the event again and again at each stage of their development and into their adulthood. Also, I didn't want this admittedly life altering event to become what defined my son. My heart goes out to all of you who lost your parents at a young age. I still cry for my son, his still round cheeks, little boy pajamas and innocence lost.
pjl2012 Michigan . . . . . . . . .. For many years I taught a course on Death and Dying to college students. Many of these young people had never experienced a death and were so afraid that when one happened they would not know how to react, that they would "freak out." Others had already experienced far too much death and were looking for ways to deal with it. It is a rewarding memory for me when I recall how many students told me that it was the best class they'd had and that all students should take it. I knew it was not due to me, but to the fact that our culture does not teach children and young adults about death and dying, and what they see on TV and in movies gives a very traumatic idea about it. The class was a safe place for them to talk about it from many perspectives (cultural, historical, religious, and practical) and provided resources for them to take into their future lives. This kind of education could be offered in many places and would be very helpful when the inevitable happens. I always wished I'd taken it myself before my father died!
crl new york, ny NYT Pick . . . . . . . . .. My husband died from cancer, when our children were 9 and 11 years old. The absolute best decision I made was to go to the Center for Hope- part of Long Island Jewish Hospital in Lake Success. We went within 6 weeks of his death. The kids were broken into age groups to discuss their feelings at an age appropriate level. Trained social workers led the groups. While we waited for our kids, the adults had our own session discussing our situations and feelings. For kids and parents alike it was the only place that we could openly discuss our grief and anger at our situation with others who actually "knew how we felt." and at the same time without worrying about keeping up a good face. It was the first place we openly cried and openly laughed. I do believe this group therapy helped us on every level to cope with our new normal.
Helen Perkins Buenos Aires, Argentina . . . . . . . . .. Children are aware of death as early as 3 or 4 years old, together with the differences between little girls and little boys. (They are also curious about pregnancy at this age as so many will be having new brothers and sisters.) They may have seen road kill, have one of their pets die, hear of someone's grandparent die. They will ask about it and expect an answer they can understand. The words the Rabbi suggested in the article are excellent. Their fear is that the people they depend on might die and again the Rabbi's answer is just the way to go. These are normal life events and children must not be shielded from them. They need to grieve too. It never dawns on children that they might die (often until they are young adults, unfortunately for us parents!), unless they lose a classroom mate or a sibling. Those are deaths that are difficult to explain but must also be addressed for the child to come to terms with their loss. I'm an Argentine psychologist and in US fori on Linked In I check out, many professionals there strongly recommend the book called "The fall of Freddy the Leaf" by Leo Buscaglia, PhD. I ordered it from Amazon and it is truly an amazing book to read to little ones about death. I wish we had something like that here in Spanish for parents to read to their little ones! It sheds a gentle light on death and I strongly recommend it for all you lucky Americans who can share this book with your kids!
Larkin Warren Ct NYT Pick . . . . . . . . .. When I was a little girl--third, fourthm fifth grade--I went to parochial school. When children in the parish died, students were often asked to come sing parts of the funeral Mass, or sit in the pews and "bear witness," since very few mourners ever came to the funeral for a child.This was before any of my grandparents had died, or before the inevitable friends-and-family deaths that would happen in the years to come. The nuns explained to us what we would see--small coffins, weeping moms and dads--and said we'd be part of helping these families feel less alone. Maybe the music might help them feel a better. It was a big deal for an 8 or 9 year old to feel like she was doing something helpful for a family who was grieving the loss of a child. None of this was ever a circus, all of it was sad, but it was also an early lesson in community and the one thing we have in common—we will all die. And before we do, we will grieve. There are one or two of those ceremonies I still see clearly in my mind. It was this memory that helped me when my own son was grieving his grandparents, when my parents grieved the loss of two daughters, when my sister grieved the loss of two babies. The other thing I learned over the years is that if you lie to kids about something they'll learn the truth of from other people, you'll pay the price, but the kid will pay a bigger one. Best to tell truth, and to model it, however difficult that may be. Doing otherwise doesn't protect anybody from anything.
ACW New Jersey NYT Pick . . . . . . . . .. Shielding children from death is a relatively new development in the culture. The room in almost every American house that we ironically call the living room was originally where visitors were received, including laying out the body of the deceased, and it was the norm to die at home. Mediaeval woodcuts of the good death generally depict people lying peacefully in their own beds, surrounded by family. The nightmare that is hospital death, or death in a nursing home surrounded by paid caretakers, was, if known at all, not wished on your worst enemy. As Stephen King put it in 'Pet Sematary', death would come in and pull up a chair and say howdy. The silence about death is part of the larger denial, the idea that if we deny the existence of something, it won't exist. Kids know better - they see the world without filters. And trying to shield them only makes them fear it more.
Gail WA . . . . . . . . .. My ex-husband's mother died 50 years ago, when he was nine. He was never allowed to grieve. When that happens, all you know is that this person abandoned you. His emotional distance and workaholic habits has had repercussions his entire adult life--one of those was our divorce.
Franklin D. Nash, M.D. Indianapolis, IN USA . . . . . . . . .. I'm an 80 y/o retired academic nephrologist who lost his mother at age eight (1941). Through her illness, marked by two operations for cancer, primary and metastatic to the brain, I was aware of morbidity but never suspected mortality. I was sent to relatives at holiday time and from there taken to my grandparent's to join a party. My father took me into another room and told me my mother was dead and buried. I didn't believe him. I had done something(s) terribly wicked and was sent away while my mother packed and left us. For decades I hid that terrible little boy. Kept people who wanted to friend me at arm's length lest they smell the rottenness. Succeeded by burying myself in my work. Lost two wives and nearly my two children. Decades of depression, pain and self loathing. Psychiatrists. Medications. Therapists. Orders from administration, "Keep Frank functioning." 30 months ago, I hit bottom, my therapist (bless him) allowed me to crash, taking the chance that he could help me push up to the surface and swim to a "normal" life (I had been a competitive swimmer, so please forgive the poor metaphor). He did, and I did. To quote Mr. Goldsmith, " “I would have loved the opportunity to have fully grieved and started the healing process at age 9 instead of 28,” " Now I cry, I'm sensitive and tear up in emotional situations, the inner rot has been excised, and I let people in. Last night my 47 y/o son told my therapist in a 'phone call, "Thanks for giving me my father."
Gail WA . . . . . . . . .. So glad you have healed. You have great courage; thank you for sharing your story. Nancy California . . . . . . . . .. In my case, my mother held all the grief to herself, feeling that only she was grieving. When i was 12, my older sister died; when I was 22 my father died. In both cases, only mother's grief mattered. The rest of us couldn't possibly feel as bad as she did. We didn't talk about these deaths except for her to express how she felt. If I had feelings about them, the response was 'How do you think I feel? He was my husband, my daughter, etc' as if there wasn't enough grief to go around.
David Stuyvesant Town . . . . . . . . .. Fantastic article. I wish I had been exposed to these realities as a child, because when I became an adult, I had no tools to deal with death and grieving. This was a huge learning curve for me and one that disrupted my adult life a few times before I was finally able to find a healthy, somewhat non-disruptive way to deal with the tumult of emotions. Our society simply does not give enough time for the grieving process, so if you are unprepared, it can endanger your job, your education, your relationships with others. Children who are assisted with these realities have the chance to grow to be adults who will be more prepared when death rears its inevitable head.
P. NJ . . . . . . . . .. Death is a part of the circle of life. I was raised in Ireland. First time I saw (and kissed) a corpse was when the next door neighbors mother died. She was laid out in the house. I was probably 8 or 9. My father worked in a funeral parlor, heard ALL the stories. When my mother died my two sisters and I got to dress her corpse as the funeral director is related to us. It was a beautiful way to say goodbye.
renolady reno, nv. . . . . . . . . .. Obviously, I neglected to write the word "never" in the phase "never see him again". Freudian slip.....maybe.
yeno NYC . . . . . . . . .. There's a documentary featuring a Japanese elementary school teacher with a form of compassion training as part of the curriculum. One can view the 5-part series here: Children Full Of Life https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=armP8TfS9Is
Don P. Perth Amboy, NJ . . . . . . . . .. This article and its message is so important and relevant. I lost my mother 55 years ago when I was five years old. My father and all of our close relatives tried to shield me and my brothers from our terrible loss and did what they thought was best for us at that time. However, even after 55 years of a good fulfilling life nothing has ever taken away the pain that I still feel today of not being able to mourn and fully understand my mother's death. Children need to be made a part of the mourning and healing process associated with the loss of a close family member or loved one.
Adrienne Crowther Asheville, NC . . . . . . . . .. Thank you for this insightful and informative article. Death is part of the circle of life, as is birth. Our culture has so many fears around death, and we tend to get through it, rather than celebrate a life that has come full circle. By openly dealing with death with children, we will begin to embrace death rather than fear it. Everyone's life will end at some point. Many cultures have beautiful, significant rituals when a loved one has died, which provide closure and healing for all involved. I commend these pioneers who are instrumental in lifting our attitudes around this final chapter of life. Grief doesn't disappear. If it's not dealt with in a healthful, honest manner, it will rear its painful head sometime. It is unavoidable. It is my belief that children experience all of life, as long as it's approached with integrity, respect, and age-appropriateness.
Karen Warren-Severson Northern MN . . . . . . . . .. I am so touched by the comments above. The article is one of the best I've read, thorough and helpful. I agree with one of the responders that there is a solid middle ground for helping children grieve. And help them we must. I find most of my adult clients and my friends with painful lives, have unaddressed loss at the center of their pain. Loss comes to us in many ways, through death, and hidden in the folds of change. I strongly believe we need to teach children ways to acknowledge and work with their grief. I am a grief counselor with a recently published book for children and families which includes a craft kit to mend a felt heart: MENDING YOUR HEART: A WORKBOOK FOR BRINGING YOUR INSIDE FEELINGS OUT. That book kit grew from my work with many children in school settings. Their deep wisdom and ability to access and articulate what they feel changed me, and the focus of my professional grief work. Children are at the beginning of their life trajectory. Teaching them how to acknowledge and work with their grief can shift their whole life trajectory in a healing way. I may be a dreamer, but I believe we will then shift our anxious fearful world accordingly.
renolady reno, nv. . . . . . . . . .. Three years ago, our 44 year old son-in-law died suddenly and unexpectedly of a massive heart attack. He walked out the door in the morning and never came home. To make matters worse, it was the day before his oldest daughter's birthday. The kids are now 17 and 14 and are back on the right track. But the first year after his death was hell. Both girls became severely depressed and were briefly hospitalized. They stopped doing their schoolwork and became social recluses. They never cried, hated the world and were belligerent and nasty. Their world had stopped. Their Mother understood what they were going through. Their hero had died, he had deserted them and they would see him again. They loved their Dad so dearly. The family, friends and their entire small New England community rallied around them. They spent countless hours in therapy and grief counseling. It took almost two years before healing really started to take place. It was heartbreaking to watch and go through, but they have grown so much in strength and spirit, the world and life is again joyous for them. But the oldest girl no longer celebrates her birthday on the real day.... and probably never will.
Laura Cleveland, OH . . . . . . . . .. My first funeral experience was when I had just turned 4. Our neighbour passed away and my sister, aged 5-1/2, and I were taken to the funeral parlour. My mother knew we would have questions and answered them honestly and forthrightly. We all liked these neighbours and my mother knew this was a teachable moment. Not only did neither of us misbehave, act out, create a scene or do anything that people think young children might possibly do to "ruin a moment," I actually remember my mother complimenting us on how well we handled the funeral. She and our father had versed us on proper etiquette when attending funerals before we got there and they never had to look back. (Dad went after work that evening to pay his respects). I will always be thankful that my parents were not afraid to introduce us to life's unpleasantries, be they severe illness, disability or death.
Kat Chicago . . . . . . . . .. When I was 8, my dad died and I found his body. To this day 22 years later, this is something my family has never talked to me about. It took until college for me to admit to myself, let alone others, that I thought I had a role in his death. I urge parents to please please talk to your kids when someone dies, give them room to grieve and understand and to gain comfort from you.
P. NJ . . . . . . . . .. Oh Kat I'm so sorry that you had that experience.
Anita MA . . . . . . . . .. I was not allowed to attend my beloved uncle's death when I was 9. My parents thought it would be too much for me. They also hid the death of my dog for many months after it happened, telling me (lying to me) that she had been injured and was recovering at the animal hospital...hoping (I heard them talking) that I'd stop asking. It was because of events like these that I learned to distrust my parents at an early age. I was ready and able to hear the truth in both cases, and to participate in the family's grieving, but was not offered the opportunity. I would never treat a child of mine in that way.
ACW New Jersey . . . . . . . . .. For many children the first experience of death is that of a pet. I'll never forget when my autistic sister's parakeet keeled over. She wasn't home, so my parents ran out and got a bird of the same colour. She saw the difference at once, and (although she accepted the new bird) was no less heartbroken over the loss of her pet, compounded by anger at our parents that they would think (a) that living creatures would be so easily interchangeable, and (b) that she was so simpleminded as not to see the difference. I also remember all too vividly my screaming fight with my dad after our cat was accidentally run over. He didn't want to let me see the body; I wanted not only to see my cat, but to be the one to bury him, to do one last thing for him. I never did forgive my dad for that. Part of the process of becoming an adult is forgetting how a child thinks. Give your kids credit. Usually they're stronger than you think (quite possibly stronger than you are).
Ann Vermont . . . . . . . . .. The outpouring of stories by adults who felt they were not given the opportunity to grieve properly as children or, by contrast, were overwhelmed by being thrust into it too early is a testament to the importance of this issue for so many. Everyone has a right to grieve in his or her own way and we should not force any child to do anything or have a conversation they are not comfortable with. The key is to give them the opportunity to see parents cry and to attend funerals and to be a part of the the discussion both before (if possible) and after death. But we adults who feel we were not given those opportunities also do not need to blame our parents for the way they handled it with us or carry that anger into our late years. This is the evolution of a culture. Each generation has their lessons to teach and learn and our kids may very well take issue with the way we try and help them grieve. There certainly is no perfect way to grieve and grief professionals should not kid themselves that they have discovered one. Grief is often a long slow painful process no matter what the circumstances are. We cannot protect our children from it and we should not try to. What we can do is use death as an opportunity to be open with our kids about our own fears and shortcomings. That is, an opportunity to learn and grow as a family and a society.
Jodi O'Donnell-Ames Pennington, NJ . . . . . . . . .. I am so very grateful for this article and the positive effect it will have on our nation's children. I have raised three children, all of whom have lost a parent, and know that children must grieve (and will grieve differently) to move forward. You have helped transform a generation with this information... the old school approach to children and loss needs reformation and this is a perfect place to start. Thank you! As the founder of a non-profit for children who are grieving, hopelovescompany.com, I applaud your efforts and this poignant piece.
Barbara Crafton Metuchen, NJ . . . . . . . . .. Both of my grandmothers died at home when I was a girl. Of course it was sad and sometimes I was afraid, but we children were part of it. In our small ways, we could even help. Of course it was life-changing -- sorrow changes your life! My parents handled it as well as they could, and the tiny church family in that rural village rallied round, as they always did. All told, our sorrow was held in a basket of love and continuity. I bless them all.
BNYgal brooklyn . . . . . . . . .. Good article, however, I think that if a parent commits suicide, it might be best to wait until the child is at least 12 to tell them that. Otherwise, I think it creates a too much feeling of willful abandonment since small children won't understand why someone might take their life and leave them alone. db northern
MN NYT Pick . . . . . . . . .. Careful. My mother committed suicide when I was two and a half. I was alone in the house with her and to this day do not have clear memories of what happened, but even by the age of four, when I repeated to others the lies the surviving adults told me, I KNEW they were lies. I can remember the woozy, "wrong" feeling that gave me even now, in my 40s. The surviving adults never talked to me. I found a copy of the coroner's report sometime in my teens, said nothing about it, but kept it. I remember how that felt, too. And I certainly know how I felt less than a month ago when my husband broached the subject to my father for the first time and my father said, "She never seemed that interested in her mother or what happened back then." I think children can always feel willfully abandoned, whatever the circumstances; and I think they can always feel supported, whatever the circumstances. So much - SO much - depends on how much the survivors actually know and care about the child and how the topic is handled (...or not).
Janet NY . . . . . . . . .. Forty-six years ago yesterday my father died. I was twelve. My brother and I were not allowed to go to the funeral or burial. We hadn't even been told how sick our father was, and for the year prior to his death, all the hushed conversations and the brushing away of our questions left me feeling that the very worst was happening. And it was. But being treated as if I wasn't part of the family, as if my love for my father was somehow less worthy, damaged me for the rest of my life. I felt that I had failed, that I couldn't take care of my dad, perhaps, even that my "secret" knowledge was somehow responsible for his illness and death. My father's death all those years ago is still the biggest trauma of my life. It convinced me that loss will always come and that I will be alone with it. In this day and age, I believe it nearly criminal to lie to children in service of some idea of shielding them from pain. More pain and trauma is caused by such actions than most people could ever believe. Complicated grief - enormous disruption to one's life- is the likely result. Children feel and love just as much as adults, and their minds also create more guilt for themselves and feelings that they are bad. Let children know the truth - while giving them the support they need. To do less is often making them feel "less than" and dooming them to a lifetime of searching for their lost beloved parent.
Margaret Gannon Charleston, SC . . . . . . . . .. At age 7, I didn't know my father had died until after he was buried. I never got the chance to say goodbye to him. As a parent, I never hid death from my children, whether it was a bird that crashed into our window, a pet that had died, or a family member. Because of this, my children don't fear death. They see it as a part of living. Every living thing dies eventually, it's the memories that live on.
lori eslick muskegon Michigan . . . . . . . . .. The Book I illustrated titled: THE GOOD FIRE HELMET is written by Tim Hoppey a 9/11 first responder it tells the story of two boys who are now afraid after their father died. But after one boy rescues the other boy, the brothers now become brave, like their Dad. I think it is a great bereavement book. And there are so few that help the survivors, the kids to come to terms, on their own terms.
Lori Eslick . . .. learninghappenseverywhere New England NYT Pick . . . . . . . . .. I hope this story will reach and educate the many Americans with outdated beliefs about talking to children about death and grief. We recently lost my spouse's beloved elderly grandfather, with whom we and our children were all very close. There were 2 weeks between when he got ill and when he passed. At first, it appeared that death was imminent, so I explained to our kids (ages 5-13) what had happened/was likely to happen to him. They had so many questions, about what was going on inside his body, why the doctors couldn't give him medicine or perform surgery, and how, exactly, people actually die. I followed their lead as they explored their beliefs about God, heaven, angels, and even fairies. Suddenly: Zayde gained consciousness. I had to make a quick choice. Do I bring the kids to visit a man on his deathbed? I followed my instinct, and went against advice. We arrived, I panicked; *I* felt scared and sad seeing him. But they didn't. They had the opportunity to express their love to the man who had given them so much of it, and took turns holding his hands and applying a moistened sponge to his lips for comfort. Saying goodbye, leaving, knowing...they were much, much braver than I. At the funeral days later, our 7-yr-old asked for a chance to say a few words. All three solemnly took up the shovel at his burial. They were sad, but calm; they quietly offered comfort in the form of little-kid conversation to the adults. We grieve together, and it feels natural that way.
carol paris, france . . . . . . . . .. Thank you for sharing your story. It's not easy to know how to deal with this kind of situation with children, and your example is very sincere and honest. Something for me to keep in mind, as a mother of three. Siouxie Bronx . . . . . . . . .. You did the right thing, and I'm sure your family feels the same way too. You chose to INCLUDE your children in the situation and doing so strengthens the family unit. Very moving essay you wrote and thank you.
Sajwert NH NYT Pick . . . . . . . . .. My life has been altered by the fact that when I was 5, my beloved grandfather died and my life changed drastically. I was whisked away to another state, another life style, and I never understood what happened as no one really talked to me. I spent most of my life after that waiting for anyone whom I loved to up and leave me. Only in later life through therapy did I come to slowly understand that aspect of my behavior. I'm awaiting my 80th birthday now, and have 9 great-grandkids, one of them being very close to me since babyhood. He is eleven, and recently we had a little talk about the time when I will be gone and he will be sad and miss me. We talked about how loving someone means that the person who loves might be gone, but the love stays. I believe children can understand a lot more about death and loss than adults want to deal with - it isn't the kids the adults worry about, it is their own inability to be honest about death and what it means overall to the child.
julie New York . . . . . . . . .. This is very beautiful. Thank you.
Sheri New Mexico . . . . . . . . .. I was 10 years-old when my father died. I was sitting with my mother and brother at his hospital bed, and BINGO...my DADDY fell back on his pillow and gasped for air and died. I was taken to the funeral to see him in an open casket and then taken to the cemetery to see the casket lowered into the ground. The images are burned into my memory and into my heart with the anguish of a branding iron. Be careful what you expose a child to. Of course there was no grief counseling or grief camps for me 55 years ago. No...it was just plain and simple...brutal truth. But with all the sugar coating you are describing today, it's still probably too much for a child that age to witness. I have friends who were not even TOLD their fathers had died and they too are terribly scarred by that lie. So somewhere between brutal reality and outright lies there is a place that is safe for a child. Just don't do to a child what was done to me. I didn't need to see my father in his coffin...covered with makeup and looking like some strange, frightening entity. I didn't need to see the coffin being lowered into the ground. I didn't need any of that and it didn't help me to grieve in a more complete way by being totally traumatized. Children are children. They are incredibly impressionable and sensitive. Let them be spared some of this brutality.
Oscar Wisconsin . . . . . . . . .. I'm glad you wrote. There is a difference between helping a child confront reality and smacking the child in the face with it. That balance will differ from family to family, but clearly some real and true invitations to ask questions and express feelings, particularly fear, are a critical part of the balance.
lksf lksf NYT Pick . . . . . . . . .. I do believe that children need to be part of the process and to understand what is happening. I do not believe it is appropriate for a parent to cry "all the time" in front of them and dump their emotional pain on them. They most of all need to know that they will be okay and that someone solid will be there for them. It would be terrifying to have a parent falling apart all the time while the other one is dying.
Bracha Israel NYT Pick . . . . . . . . .. When my mother-in-law was very sick with cancer, we learned how important it is to tell things as they are. We repeatedly told our young children (the oldest was 12) that "Bubby is very sick," and that the doctors might not be able to make her well. But when she died, the kids were very surprised - they had not made the connection, as an adult would, that being very sick could lead to death. We realized that it would have been much better to say, "people who are this sick usually die."
Siouxie Bronx NYT Pick . . . . . . . . .. Grief is something that should be shared among the family. It can be a time of bonding and closeness. However, when my father died suddenly (as a victim of medical malpractice) when I was 16 and my brother 14, my mother stood in the doorway of our bedroom and basically announced it and left the room. It was so shocking, and to this day I can't believe my mother would just dump it our laps like that. Guess you could call that parental malpractice.
Laura Cleveland, OH . . . . . . . . .. Your mother did what she did because once she said the words, she most likely went to grieve privately, not wanting to "make a spectacle" of herself. Many a generation was taught to keep a stiff upper lip over such things. There is never a right or wrong way to grieve. My condolences for your loss.
KM New York . . . . . . . . .. Wow, that seems very difficult. I'm sorry about your loss and your mother's inability to console you. The only thing I can say in your mother's defense is that sudden death is so shocking that some people become detached, almost as if they are not living in reality.
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