"Why did Grandpa go away? Was he mad at me?" "What happens when you die?" "Is Grandma going to cry like that forever?" "Can I go play now?"
When there has been an unexpected death of a loved one, adults often fail to realize that children can be confused by adult reactions. The emotional reactions by different members of a family may range from crying and hysteria to laughing. Children will know that something is wrong, but may not have the life experience to put snatches of information into the context of their thinking process. Children may also imagine that something has happened that will threaten their safety and security.
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Provide age appropriate information
Many people in Western cultures are uncomfortable using the words: dead, death or dying. Instead, the event is described using euphuisms: passing over, passed away, and transitioned to the other side. Children, who may have seen bugs die, or dead birds, or may even have buried a pet, really have no frame of reference for "passing away."
Children need to be given information about the death, in a caring and calm manner, according to their age and understanding. Each child will then be able to absorb the reality and begin grieving and processing facts and feelings in his or her own way. Putting this information into a context he or she can understand will generate questions. This will give you the opportunity to clear up any misunderstanding and validate the child's feelings.
Take the time to explain
Children want to please the adults in their lives and watch for verbal and non-verbal clues to what will make the adults happy. If children sense their questions are annoying or upsetting, they will stop asking questions. Take the time to answer the questions and explain that each person grieves and misses a loved one differently. There is no right or wrong way. Encourage them to talk with others who are involved. Such conversations may even include sharing stories of happier times.
If it is your belief that Grandpa has gone to Heaven, explain how and why to the child. In our family, we used the analogy of the glove with the hand removed, to illustrate the spirit leaving the body. We then explain what happens to the body (glove) after the spirit or soul is separated.
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Older children tend to be more interested in the actual process of death. They want reassurance that death is not usually so unexpected and that we, as parents, are not going to die soon. The younger ones are not sure whether they should be having fun with their cousins while the adults are crying.
Allow them to say goodbye
When is the right age to allow children to attend services? It depends on the temperament, age and maturity of the child as well as family expectations. Whether a child attends the actual funeral is a mutual decision made after a caring adult explains what will happen, who will be there, and what to expect. If the child was close to the deceased, he or she should be allowed to take some part in commemorating that person's life, perhaps by planting a tree or writing a letter.