June 29, 2018 at 1:50 pm #3748
I agree in having patience in talking about someone being in heaven when talking to a child about someone who has died, or who is very ill and may die soon. We don’t want the idea of heaven to be a frightening place, or God to be thought of as a mean spirit who takes away our loved ones. People use euphemisms about death – someone has passed away, or they have fallen asleep and woken up in heaven; even worse is saying something like “God needed another flower in his garden in heaven.” This is not just confusing for kids, it is scary (not to mention being bad theology). Children are concrete thinkers, and I have seen well-meaning adults make children afraid to go to bed and go to sleep, or be afraid of God coming to take away other people they love (or even themselves). How important to lay the groundwork for those more abstract concepts, and how important to offer reassurance.
After my mom died, my son who was 4 at the time asked me “is it going to hurt?” I thought he was talking about dying itself, but he was talking about getting into heaven. He couldn’t really grasp what we meant when we talked about heaven, but he had an idea that it had to hurt to get there.
I really like the point about being concrete with a child about what it means to be dead – no more need to eat, sleep, go to the bathroom, etc… I have seen so many people talk about people no longer suffering, but that can be too abstract for a child, particularly if their loved one is far away and they haven’t witnessed struggling or suffering first hand. Plus, kids can relate to the idea of sleeping, pooping, etc… and so they can grasp the idea that someone no longer needs to do that when they are dead.
I love the comments about how talking about it honestly when someone is dying teaches our kids the greater lesson that we can talk about anything and get through anything together, even if it is hard and even if we are incredibly sad and upset at times. That seems so important for the later development into healthy adults, and it provides such security in the immediate present. It also normalizes feelings and gives permission to grieve – my kids saw my husband and his father cry when their grandmother died, and it didn’t scare them because he had been able to cry with them before, when they talked about the possibility of Grandma dying. The funeral itself reinforced the idea that we can get through this together because we are a team, we love each other and we can trust each other and share with each other. We were also very careful to create space and opportunities for them to express themselves in their own ways – our team can allow for people to grieve in different ways.
Suicide is difficult for me, in part because my grandfather killed himself and no one talked about it for 30 years. My cousin found out by accident when someone she barely knew mentioned it, and that revelation caused a sense of betrayal that harmed her relationship with her mom for a good while. I struggle with the approach to just tell an older child that someone’s brain wasn’t working right, and he or she killed him/herself as a result. Several members of my family struggle with depression, and we also talk with our kids about how sometimes someone’s brain is out of balance due to hormones or strong emotions or struggles. I don’t want my kids to think that family members with depression or bi-polar are all in danger of suicide – it is a risk that people need to be aware of, most definitely. But glossing over the causes of suicide as “their brains weren’t working right” runs the risk of stigmatizing depression. A fuller conversation is necessary because there are lots of reasons someone’s brain may not be working right – it is good to maybe identify why someone’s brain wasn’t working right. I imagine the depth of this conversation really depends on the age of the child.
June 29, 2018 at 5:45 pm #3752
I so appreciate your open and candid sharing of your own journey. We are all “wounded healers” for sure. You obviously share out of the deep journey and the pain you have experienced and lived through. I agree with your hesitation to embrace the suggestions around suicide and the discussion about heaven. Since most parish pastors have little or no training in practical theology or CPE or equivalent experience, I think it is hard to address these theological questions in ways that kids or adults for that matter can embrace. More thought and creativity needs to be used in creating better ways to talk with kids about death, heaven, suicide, etc.
July 1, 2018 at 8:23 am #3754
Lori Casey BSN MDiv., BCC-PCHACParticipant@lcasey
Hi Carolyn and Rick, please forgive me for the late reply. I was cleaning house yesterday and splashed toilet bowl cleaner in my eye. It burned like fire and my husband helped me flush my eye and then drove me to a minor emergency center nearby. I now have antibiotic ointment in my eye and I feel like I am typing to you in a visual fog.
I really liked this article and found it helpful. The author makes excellent points about telling the truth to children, and is especially insightful as to not overload them with more than they can process and/or understand. Children are concrete thinkers and I appreciate the examples given by the author. When our palliative team was asked by families if they “should make the child visit” (to see a close family member who was very ill or even after their death) we would say “no, don’t make a child do anything they feel uncomfortable with, let them decide.” Many times, outside the sick or dying family member’s hospital room, children would tell me that they wanted to visit “Grandpa, Grandma, mom, dad, sibling, etc….” but when offered the chance to go to the bedside, some children would hang back in the room near the doorway or not even appear in the doorway. In contrast, other children would walk right into the patient’s room and start talking to the patient or asking family members questions about what they were seeing. From what I have repeatedly observed, children seem to know instinctively what is comfortable for them or not comfortable. Most important is to support the children in that moment and in their choice. There are many reasons for why some children are more comfortable with sickness, dying and death but certainly the author’s point about normalizing the event, talking openly and truthfully to the child, and adults willingness to show that grief and grieving is a normal response to a loved one’s illness, decline and or death does make a huge difference in how a child processes what is happening.
I love the words at the end of the first part of the article written by the author: “…There are no books that will do it for us and there are no magic “right” words to say. It’s the trying, the sharing and the caring-the wanting to help and the willingness to listen- that says, ‘I care about you.’ “When we know that we do care about each other, then, together, we can talk about even the most difficult things and cope with even the most difficult times.” Trust is so important in the difficult discussions in life. I believe that if children feel safe to ask questions and if grief is normalized and witnessed, they will more likely to develop healthy coping skills.
Rick and Carolyn, I agree with you that making kids feel “safe” is important in helping children grieve. One point in which I would have a different opinion from the author would be on the topic of Heaven. I remember learning in Sunday school as a little child about Heaven. Heaven was always “up there somewhere” complete with baby angels playing harps, and a kind looking Jesus comforting people. For families whose faith tradition finds great comfort in the concept of Heaven, I believe it is fine to talk about Heaven. Kids are going to hear about Heaven anyway in church. When working with families experiencing a death in the hospital, I would always talk with parents and encourage them to beware of and correct some of the (crazy) things well meaning people might say to their children that could frighten them such as: “God needed another angel; Your “mother” (loved one) is a star in the sky; God must have needed them more in heaven than here on earth; God meant for this to happen.” These kinds of comments are terrifying (and terrible theology) and frighten children who may think God will randomly snatch them for whatever reason. In one of the hardest deaths I have ever been present for, the family (claiming atheism) told the young children, “We really don’t know where “daddy” is, daddy is dead, done.” Several of the kids started crying immediately- asking if their daddy was “lost” and “needed to be found.”
Suicide is difficult for anyone to grasp, and harder to explain. How and what you say are always dependent on a child’s age. There is a one page article in Psychology today that addresses talking to kids about suicide that I have found it helpful. It goes along with our discussion: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/promoting-hope-preventing-suicide/201608/talking-kids-about-suicide. I will post more later.
July 2, 2018 at 8:39 pm #3779
Rick and Lori,
Great to get the chatting going! Lori, I hope your eye is much better today – it sounds like a very painful experience yesterday!
I also really loved the words at the end of the first section of the article – there are no books, no magic, no right words to say – it is the trying and the wanting to help and the willingness to listen that conveys such a depth of security, even in the midst of grief. So many people want the right answers, the magic wand, in part to help the person they love that is grieving (especially a child) and in part because they are anxious and uncomfortable. I am always on alert for the crazy but well-meant comments like the ones Lori and I mentioned. One thing I have found that has helped adults be more comfortable with being honest and frank (vs. talking in euphemisms) is to ask them if they really think that their child/loved one doesn’t understand at some level what is going on, doesn’t have thoughts and feelings that they would like or need to process – parents often end up realizing that they are anxious and trying to protect themselves. It is just a hard situation for everyone!
July 4, 2018 at 6:24 pm #3794
Happy 4th of July my Helping Children Grieve friends!
I really appreciate all that has been shared and the readings. I think it is worth adding if it hasn’t already been said, that small children more often use symbols to talk about their grief, indirectly. They might draw a picture of a dog or cat getting hit by a car or squashed by something falling on it to share grief about the loss of a loved one. I have found that often in their play, kids will. indirectly express grief. Being sensitive and paying attention to these clues is important and helpful.
July 5, 2018 at 1:15 pm #3799
It is challenging to help little ones cope when a loved one dies. I really appreciated the helpful language of describing what a dead person cannot do anymore, “cannot eat, or move, etc.” The use of concrete language does go a long way in my experience. Suicide is such a painful loss for those left behind. I remember the explanation a Priest gave when I asked for his thoughts on how to make sense theologically of suicide. He said he didn’t think God would hold people accountable because their brain was ill, and just like God would not fault us if we had heart disease or cancer, God will not fault us if our minds are ill. I also concentrate on memory making for children. If they can write down their memories, and if not, an adult can write the memories and the children can draw accompanying pictures. As the children grow older they will have the memory books as a reminder of their loved one. When my nephew lost his Grandma he was so young he could not write yet so I asked him to tell me what he enjoyed doing with his grandpa and what he remembered about him. He said he liked to go fishing and that his grandpa told great stories. He drew pictures of those activities. He also shared that his Grandpa was in the war and he drew pictures of that too!
July 5, 2018 at 1:25 pm #3800
Your story about the children of the atheist remind me of two little girls I had years ago. They were from a strong Christian family and their mom was dying in the ICU and the nurse wanted me to try and comfort them. When I walked in they shared with me that their mom was dying and getting ready to go to heaven. Somewhere in my reading I had learned that children need to be able to imagine placing those they love somewhere other than the cold hard ground after they have died. I brought out the crayons and paper and ask them to draw a picture of heaven and what their mom might like to do there. I then gave the pictures to their dad.
July 5, 2018 at 1:56 pm #3801
I really appreciate everyone for sharing specifics of how they have worked with children, as much of my work has been with parents and caregivers rather than young children. It is good to hear first-hand how you have helped children grieve in appropriate ways to make meaning and honor the lives of people they love who have died. An investment in paper and crayons seems very appropriate!!
July 8, 2018 at 2:23 pm #3808
Lori Casey BSN MDiv., BCC-PCHACParticipant@lcasey
Carolyn I meant to thank you for you kind concern for my eye earlier. Mostly I was feeling so cross with myself for hurrying to clean the toilet and carelessly splashing chemicals in my eye. After all, I have been cleaning toilets for decades…lol. Rick thank you for sharing about kids using symbols and objects to indirectly talk about their grief. My experience with children and grief is so limited. In my ministry as a chaplain and even when I was an associate pastor, my contact with grieving children was short term. In the hospital I was focused on memory making such making prints of their loved ones hand(s) on a pillowcase and then tracing the hands of the children around it, etc… Both Dierdre and Carolyn have also given excellent examples of caring well for children in the immediate declining/dying/death timeframe. I was watching “Sleepless in Seattle” last night and was intrigued by a scene between Sam (Tom Hanks) and his young son Jonah (Ross Malinger). Jonah was grieving the death of his mom and Sam was comforting him. Here was their conversation:
Jonah Baldwin: What do you think happens to someone after they die?
Sam Baldwin: I don’t know.
Jonah Baldwin: Like… do you believe in Heaven?
Sam Baldwin: [hesitates] I never did. I mean, the whole idea of an afterlife… But now, I don’t know. ‘Cause I have these dreams. About your mom. And we have these long talks about you and how you’re doing, which she sort of knows, but I tell her anyway. So what is that? That’s sort of an afterlife, isn’t it?
I have never paid much attention to that exchange until this class! What do you all think, would this be a comfort or not? Personally, I was thinking that locating my loved one in the moon temporarily (until faith matured) might be more helpful. Hope you all have had a good 4th week/weekend
July 10, 2018 at 1:08 pm #3811
I am not sure that the conversation in Sleepless in Seattle would be comforting to a child Jonah’s age; maybe to a teenager, but I think he is only 9 or 10 in the movie. But then again, having a comfortable conversation like that does give the message that they are a team and can talk about/deal with anything together, and it normalizes for Jonah that it is okay to wonder and question about things like heaven. Perhaps it is one of those situations that ends up being beneficial for both father and son in the long run but only seems immediately comforting in a Hollywood movie!
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