Helping Kids Cope With Death
Whether it's a grandparent, parent or friend, at some point children are going to experience losing a loved one. Here are five ways to talk to your child about loss.
When funeral director David Techner talks to children about death, they always ask, "Will I die too?" And when Techner answers with a matter-of-fact "Yes, of course you will die. Every living thing dies," an audible gasp from adults invariably sucks the air out of the room.
It can be difficult to talk to kids about death, says Techner, owner of the Ira Kaufman Chapel funeral home in Southfield and a leading expert on the issue. A parent's first instinct is to protect her child from the pain and fear associated with loss, but Techner has made a career out of helping families handle this sensitive subject. Here, the author of A Candle for Grandpa and co-creator of the documentary Generation to Generation shares five things parents should consider.
1. Breaking the news
Techner is passionate about helping parents cope with death due to a personal experience. When he was 9, he came home from school one day to a lawn full of cars and a house overflowing with relatives. His beloved grandfather had died after a prolonged illness, and it was the first Techner had heard of it.
"My parents had already planned the funeral and were sitting Shiva (a weeklong period of mourning in Jewish tradition), but didn't know how to tell me." Techner didn't get to visit his "Pa Sam" in the hospital or go to the funeral – something he regrets to this day. Techner now takes special care to counsel families and maintains it is never too early to talk to children about death. "The best surprise is no surprise at all," he says.
2. Physical vs. Spiritual death
Even very young children can understand physical death when it is explained in simple terms. Grandpa still has eyes, but he can't see anymore. He still has legs, but he can't walk anymore. "And by the way, he doesn't have to pee and poop anymore," Techner explains to children. "When you tell a 4-year-old that, they really get it."
Yet facts fall short when it comes to what happens to the spirit, so Techner encourages parents to share their beliefs. Do you believe in an afterlife where loved ones are reunited? Do you feel grandpa's spirit is carried on in the hearts of the living? Speak with your spouse about a unified way to convey your beliefs, then ask your child what he thinks will happen to grandpa's spirit. "That's a crucial question," Techner says.
3. Make them comfortable
Whether you are visiting a sick family member at the hospital, attending a funeral or confronting the reality of life without a loved one, it's best to give children all the facts you can. Techner physically walks children through the funeral home and points out where they will sit, where the rabbi will stand, and what the rabbi will talk about.
In more difficult cases, such as young children facing the loss of a parent, Techner says questions may hinge on practical matters, such as who will drive them to school, pack their lunches and do their laundry. It is normal for children to focus on themselves and their needs, and parents should be reassuring that the details of life will be taken care of.
4. Focus on the positive
All along, talk not about the sorrow of death but the joys of your loved one's life. Speak of the funeral in terms of a celebration, and let your child know it is a time for friends and relatives to tell stories of grandpa's life, stories your child is an important part of.
5. Will I die?
Ultimately, there's no avoiding the jarring questions. The ones parents wish to avoid the most: "Will you die?" And, more importantly: "Will I?" Techner says the best way to answer is in a straightforward, upbeat way, with a heaping dose of perspective. The average lifespan of someone born today is 90 years, which is an eternity to children. Point out that they have a very long time to live, and that you and your spouse do everything you can to stay healthy, so you'll be around for a long time, too.
Once your child begins to ponder death, she will surely have moments of anxiety over the unknown – but don't we all? She'll take comfort knowing you're there to talk about the facts as well as the philosophy.
"Tell them don't worry about when you're going to die. Worry about how you're going to live. Have fun, enjoy it and make the world a better place," Techner says. "That's what we're here for."