Talking to Children About Death
By Albert Rossi & Fr. John Schimchik
The morning my wife died I had to make a very difficult decision. The nurse said to me, “Your wife isn’t going to live until noon. You must get your son out of here.” I said, “Thank you for your opinion.” I wondered to myself, should I take my son, Tim, age 11, away from the deathbed scene of his mother, or not. Tim had “camped out” with the rest of us in the Hospice Room of the hospital for the last two and a half days. His mother had been in and out of hospitals for the past year, slowly dying of bone cancer. Tim had been part of the entire process. Should I take the nurse’s advice, and “protect” him, or should I allow him to bring his experience to a natural conclusion with the rest of us? Would it help him, or harm him? Tough question for a man in his own agony. But, this is the way it sometimes happens, when we seem least resourceful.
Most of us, at some point in our lives, will have to make some decisions about how to treat children concerning the death of a loved one, or a friend, or neighbor, or a pet. What guidelines can we use?
There Are No Magic Words
This article is an integration of Father John Shimchick’s insights and a few of my experiences, all intertwined together as one article. We hope it comes out smoothly.
More important than the “right” words with the child is the right attitude. If we can be open to the child, then the child will help us know what he/she needs. Each child in the family is unique, and will have different needs of the moment. Our role is to try to assist the child express her/his feelings in his/her unique way. The first guideline is to be open and honest about how we feel. Crying, and being sad are quite appropriate at those times.
With my Tim, I decided to go one step at a time. I suggested that he and I take a walk outside. It was one of the most difficult four block walks I have ever taken. We walked around the hospital perimeter. After a few niceties, I said that I had something very important to tell him. I then said, quite simply and plainly, “Tim, the nurse said your mother is going to die this morning. I want to be the one to tell you so you know what’s happening.” I had promised each of my two children that I would not keep secrets from them about their mother’s condition. Tim’s reaction was stoic. I might as well have said,
“The nurse said it is going to rain this morning.” I knew then that Tim needed to be part of what was coming later in the morning. He had been part of all that preceded, and to have him go home now would have been terribly incomplete. With another child the same age I might have chosen differently. I don’t know.
At my wife’s bed that morning was myself, my daughter, Beth age 16, my wife’s mother, Father Tom Hopko our priest, and half dozen friends who had “camped out” at the Hospice Room with us this weekend. Father Tom led us in soft prayer as my wife breathed laboriously. After a while, she began to breath short, sweet “baby breaths.” In a few moments she died. We were all holding hands. When she died, the doctor came in, listened to the non-heart beat, and said the perfect, non-clinical sentence, “I’m sorry.” The doctor left. We all began to cry and weep. Tim wailed so loudly that I thought someone might come in to try to quiet him, because of the hospital atmosphere. Tim wailed louder than all of us combined, and wailed for a while. He needed the safety of the loving deathbed-scene to let his horrid feelings out.
It often happens that our most appropriate role is that of a loving, quiet observer who is near but unobtrustrive. We need to be available for what the child needs, not what we think we must “provide.”
Listening often answers the deep needs of the child, and the adult as well.
Children Take Words Literally
How we talk about and react to death would seem to be related to how we experience and deal with any kind of loss: moving, divorce, death (not to mention all the countless other smaller losses), though varying in extremes, have much in common.
Fred Rogers (of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood) introduced an article by Hedda Sharapan on this topic. She gives some brilliant examples. One boy was told by his father that they were going to the funeral parlor to view the body of the boy’s grandfather. The boy was very anxious until he saw his grandfather in one piece. He had expected his head to be missing and only his body to be there.
Heaven / Paradise
This literalness can cause difficulties with the concept of Heaven. Many words might be frightening, or confusing. “If Heaven is up, then why do they put my sister in the ground?” This is a legitimate misunderstanding of a child. Or, “If Heaven is up, then can we take an airplane to see my Mommy?” Often the sentences about heaven are meant to be reassuring, but may or may not be. For example, “Your Dad is up in heaven watching over you,” might be misinterpreted as, “My Dad is spying on me and I have no privacy.”
How might an Orthodox Christian try to explain what or where is Heaven or Paradise? Though there are a number of images in the Scriptures, it would be appropriate to understand Heaven as not so much a place, as a relationship. At the time of the crucifixion the repentant thief was told by Jesus that “today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk 23:43) and in Revelation it is said, “To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God” (2:7). Paradise, as a word, means “garden.” So, to be returned to the garden has all of the implications of life as relationship and communion with God that Adam and Eve had in THE garden before the fall.
This is emphasized throughout the Orthodox funeral and memorial services by the use of the word, “with.” The choir sings, “with the saints give rest” and “with the souls of the righteous departed.” The epistle used most often for the funeral service ends with the words, “And so we shall always be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:17). Heaven is the place where we will know and be with God and with all of those who also wanted to know and be with God forever. We are reminded in the Gospel of St. John that “this is eternal life” to know God and Jesus Christ (17:3). To know and be known, to be with God always are what it means to be “remembered eternally” (thinking here of the final hymn “memory eternal”).
This raises questions also about what we are destined to become upon death: Are humans meant to become angels? Our society has a current infatuation with angels, particularly as intermediaries or messengers between divine life and humanity. One is even given the notion that humans are called to eventually become angels (think here of the popular show about angels on TV or the famous Christmas movie, “It’s A Wonderful Life” with Jimmy Stewart). Yet, though one will hear even within Orthodoxy the call, especially for monastics, to live an “angelic life” and during the liturgy to “mystically represent the cherubim” (literally to be “icons” of the cherubim), humans and angels as those “things visible and invisible” mentioned in the Creed are created by God for different purposes and are not meant to be the same. During the Feast of the Ascension one hears how the angels are “amazed” to see a man more exalted than themselves (Lord, I Call verses). There are a number of verses in the opening chapters of the epistle to the Hebrews that emphasize that Christ’s human nature has “become so much better than the angels” (1:4). So, even though humans may strive for an angelic “life,” to be truly human, does not imply literally becoming an angel.
Though we have offered some suggestions coming from the theological tradition of the Orthodox Church, realistically, a few words, born out of prayer, spoken to a grieving child are much more valuable than routine, “holy” clichés.
Images Of Rest And Sleep
How do we keep and respect the Church’s language of “falling asleep in the Lord,” giving “rest” to a servant, etc., without placing misunderstood imagery in our children’s minds? For example, if we were to tell children that Uncle John (Father John’s wife’s uncle) will look like he’s “sleeping” when they view him in a coffin how do they hear that and react from their own context of what sleep and being asleep means? If we tell children that the person is “asleep,” is it any wonder that children think the dead person will, like themselves, wake up from the sleep.
Perhaps the best way to talk to a child about a person who has died is to say the person “has died,” or “is dead.” By being honest, straightforward and as literally accurate as possible, at least we reduce the possible confusion in the child’s mind.
Value Of Intercessory Prayers / Rites Of Memory
In their evening prayers, Fr. John’s children remembered their mother’s uncle. On the first anniversary of his death, upon coming to church for his memorial service the children were reminded to light a candle and remember Uncle John in a prayer. Father Schmemann used to say that “to love is to remember.” That might not be the case in every relationship, but certainly when we love another, we can FIND that person again in remembering them before God; we can, in a way, be with them again.
On the fortieth day anniversary of my (Al Rossi) wife’s death, I drove to the cemetery, two and a half hours away, with my two children. At the funeral, there were many people, priests, incense, songs and flowers. At the fortieth day remembrance there were only the three of us, in the rain under one umbrella, with not another person anywhere to be seen. The sky was dark, the atmosphere was grim. Nothing had been done to straighten out the dead flowers atop the grave.
That particular moment is extraordinarily vivid in my mind. I felt puny. My faith in a living God, and a glorified Resurrection seemed to be folly. At that very moment, Timothy asked one of the most intimate questions of his life. He said, “Dad, Mom has been dead forty days. She’s in the ground. What do you think her face looks like now?” I was horrified at the image which came to my imagination. No doubt, Timothy had a similar image, maggots and all. His beautiful mother was decaying, and he imagined something about it. He had seen horror movies. He knew. And I knew that he knew by the look on his face.
I don’t recall what I said, exactly. Probably, in the long run what I said is not the important thing. What is vitally important is that we three were together, alone as a puny family, experiencing this ritual together. That moment was a terrifying test of my faith, and no doubt, the faith of my children. We had to face the reality of the fate of the woman we each loved so dearly, each in a different way. I drew solace and strength from my children. I really think they knew that, then. They drew strength from each other, and from me.
By human standards, that ritual can be questioned as scarring and unnecessary. By my understanding of the Christina faith, something profound happened, beyond words, that rainy fortieth day, something bonding and faith-giving for the three of us.
Would I do the fortieth day ritual over, knowing then what I know now? The answer is unequivocally YES. That was one of the darkest, most trying days of my entire life. And, that was one of the most memorable, most faith strengthening days of my entire life. A death/resurrection happened to me that day. And, I think, to my children.
When we love another, we FIND that other person in remembering the person before God.
Probably the most important consideration is the age and development level of the child. Some children who are eight years old are the emotional equivalent of eleven, and other eight year olds are the equivalent of a five year old. The cutting edge is empathy, the ability to get out of the “self” and understand the feelings of another, and the ability to accept and articulate feelings.
One primary issue for the child is abandonment. “Who will take care of me,” is the implicit question in the child’s mind. Children may not be as interested in where the dead parent went Heaven but in survival issues such as food, shelter and acceptable clothes. The child may even need to know that in the event of a future catastrophe, that provisions have been made to take care of them. They need reassurance that they will never be totally abandoned, no matter what.
Another primary issue is guilt. It would not be uncommon for a child to genuinely believe that “if I had acted better, my Mommy would not have died.” Magical thinking is part of the child’s makeup. The child may think, “When I got mad, I wished my Grandmother was dead. Now she died. Maybe I did it.”
Still another issue is that of anger. Children’s anger can take the form of, “Why me?” or, “Why my Mommy?” This anger might be directed at God, or the surviving parent. Children need the freedom to shake their fists in the sky, and to express the absurdity of the moment. It can help to let the child know that he/she is not alone in these feelings.
The evening of my wife’s death I was driving my son, Timothy, to buy a blazer for the funeral. In the darkness of the moving car I said, “Son, your mother and I didn’t always agree. Is there anything you feel bad about that you could talk to me about?” Tim said, “No, you and Mom only had one fight, and Beth and I sat on the porch swing until it was over. But, there is something I want to say. You know how Father Tom came over every day and we prayed every day for her to get better. Well, today she died. All those prayers went down the drain.” I felt inadequate, dumbfounded and helpless to say anything to make sense, or to take away his pain. I was quiet, then said something like, “I don’t understand that either, son.” The last thing he needed the night his mother died was a mini-sermon about how good God is, or how his mother was better off. Tim was angry with God, and that was his way of saying it. I’m delighted that he felt free enough to share his interior with me.
Children’s psychological issues, like those of adults, are fundamentally issues with their deepest Self, the living God living within them. Adults are merely stewards, serving and not controlling.
Protection Or Overprotection
What kind of protection is warranted and what kind might not really be helpful? For example, there was a child who did not understand about the burial of her grandmother and had to make something up. She decided that they really put her body in the attic, and that’s why the attic was someplace she was not allowed to visit.
Perhaps the best “protection” we can give our children is to give them plenty of opportunity to let us know what questions they have, and then give them straight, simple answers to their questions.
In her article, Hedda Sharapan gives some interesting examples of children’s questions. Children want to know what death is like in terms they can understand. The child may ask if the dead person will get hungry, feel cold, make a “bm” or “pee-pee.” The child may ask what position a person is in when he dies. One child helped a neighbor bury a pet fish. Some time later, the child was gazing into the fish tank and asked, “Which is the one that died?” By asking the same question over and over, the child is gradually absorbing the information.
Each child grieves in her/his own way depending upon age, temperament and experience. There is not a “unique way of grieving” for a child. Children cry, are silent, get into trouble, become better behaved, etc. Grieving and mourning take time and, again, there doesn’t seem to be a pat sequence, or time frame. The best cues seem to come from the child herself.
There’s a wonderful book called, When Dinosaurs DieA Guide to Understanding Death, by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown. The book is written for children. The book is helpful in placing death in the cycle of life (unnatural as death might in fact really be now from a Christian perspective!). It answers some serious questions in good ways. What does “dead” mean? (p.10). Feelings about death (p. 12). How can children express their feelings to the families of those who have died (p. 18). How do/can children say good-bye to a loved one (p. 20). The book also shows various funeral customs (p. 26ff).
This, then, takes the form of providing information about life. It is also best to talk about death in a “smaller” context, if possible, that is, the death of a plant, or animal, or bird.
Violent Or Sudden Deaths
There is absolutely no way to “protect” the child from mega traumas, such as the sudden, or violent death of a loved one. For example, one family of children saw their father shoot and kill their mother. Other, equally tragic, traumas happen all the time.
Children from such events suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). These children need special attention. There is evidence that brain chemistry changes occur in children, and in adults, as a result of PTSD. The therapy is usually long termed, without necessarily a psychotropic medication, but with much tenderness and patience.
Horror gets frozen in memory. The child has a perilously lowered set point for alarm, leaving the child to react to ordinary life moments as if they were emergencies. Further information on PTSD can be found in the book, Emotional Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman, (p. 200ff.) These children can emit a genuine startled reaction to the sound of a fire truck, or a dog barking. Adults need to allow this as normative, perhaps for a long time.
The therapy often includes art, a medium to the unconscious. Sometimes metaphor, story, myth and the arts generally are helpful. Dr. Judith Herman in Emotional Intelligence summarizes the therapy in the following stages: First, the child must attain a sense of safety. Then the therapy is - 1. remembering the details of the trauma, 2. mourning the loss it has brought (emotionally), and 3. reestablishing a normal life. Dr. Herman points out that there is a biological order to this sequence, which seems to reflect the sequence of the emotional brain’s relearning.
The therapy includes retelling, and re-experiencing as far as is possible, the sordid details of the trauma. This includes what was heard, smelled and felt, including the emotions of dread, disgust and nausea.
There is a brain architecture which underlies emotional relearning, and dictates the speed and the progress of the recovery. There is no way to short circuit this process.
If there is no way to get the child of PTSD into professional therapy, then the parent would do well to seek short term professional therapy for her/himself, to receive a bibliography and to receive personal direction to help the parent help the child.
Emotional circuitry can be relearned. PTSD can heal.
Should children attend funeral services, or go to wakes? Are they too young? Will it scar them? In general, it seems that children, even the very young, can benefit significantly by sharing at least some of the rituals surrounding death, if the child has been prepared for what to expect, and we have been open to questions.
Wakes and funerals provide a social structure, a safe place, to express grief and receive support. Children need to express grief, and receive support. Funerals provide a sense of finality, and closure, otherwise difficult to attain.
Whether a child is allowed to see the dead boy in a casket can be a serious decision for a parent to make. Again, in general, the actual experience is probably less traumatic than the vivid imagination the child might otherwise provide. When bringing children to a funeral home, especially when the departed is a family member or close friend, try to get there early and allow the children enough time to look and ask questions. Children might even ask what the dead body feels like. Many funeral directors are well schooled in handling the questions and concerns of children.
Many parents will attest that being together with the child at the wake, and funeral, was a growth experience, precisely because it was done “together.” Funerals and wakes can provide a common fund of experience, which can be shared then, and later.
Precisely in the efforts to share, to listen, to reach out to the child is the child provided with the answer that someone does “care.” And that, in the last analysis, is all that matters. And, that is a gift from God, freely bestowed upon the imploring adult who wants to do it God’s way.
There are no magic words. But, there is an all providing God who does, and will, fill up in us the “right words at the right time,” if we but ask Him.
In moments of death impacting a child, the adult will feel inept and without the “right words.” These are special, grace filled moments precisely because the adult is keenly aware of human inadequacy. Enter God. This is a “moment of opportunity” for the adult to turn to God, beg for help, and rely upon His infinitely wise guidance. No two situations, no two “moments of opportunity” are the same.
Brown, Laurie K. & Brown, Marc. When Dinosaurs Die. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1996.
Goleman, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam books, 1995.
Sharapan, Hedda B. “Talking With Young Children About Death,” Family Communications, inc., 4802 Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA. 15213. (412-687-2990).
Readings That Present An Orthodox Approach To The Subject Of Death
Coniaris, Anthony. Introducing the Orthodox Church.
Hopko, Thomas. Worship. Section on the “funeral”
The Living God, vol. 2 (Crestwood: SVS Press, 1989), 352-381.
Schemmann, Alexander. For the Life of the World. (Crestwood: SVS Press, 1988), 95-106.
Ware, Kallistos. “‘One Body in Christ’: Death and The Communion of Saints,” Sobornost/ECR 3:2 (1981), 179-191.
Questions For Discussion:
- What has been your experience in sharing the death of a loved one with a child? What has helped you? What has been difficult?
- How can we help a child to remember a loved one who has died? What can we discuss with him/her from the Church’s rites of remembrance?
Remembering the departed at the Proskomedia (the preparation of the bread and wine before the Liturgy), lighting candles and vigil lights in memory of the departed, memorial services at appropriate anniversaries during the year, Memorial Saturday services for the departed, the blessing of graves.
What other “rites” might be appropriate for remembering?
Dr. Albert Rossi is Professor of Psychology at Pace University, Pleasantville, NY, and has a private practice in family counseling. He is a consultant to the OCA Unit on Education and Community Life Ministries.
Fr. John Schimchick is pastor of Holy Cross Orthodox Church, Medford, NJ. He is also a member of the OCA Unit on Education and Community Life Ministries.
This article is from The Resource Handbook for Ministry www.oca.org.