When a death has occurred, the immediate response for many families is to try to shield children – from the emotional pain, but also from uncomfortable questions that can arise from an unfamiliar experience.
But regardless of how we try to protect them, children will feel strongly about the death of someone they cared about. Without the opportunity to discuss their feelings, ask questions and say goodbye, a child can feel left out, forgotten and even resentful, explains Julie Evans, manager of Sands Funeral Chapel, Cremation and Reception Centre in Colwood.
“How we educate and speak to our children about death and funerals can have a lasting impact on how they navigate future losses – of loved ones, but also a beloved pet, a job or even a teenage break-up,” Evans says. “But how do we have this conversation, especially if no one has ever had that conversation with us?”
Death – Keep the explanation simple, honest and age-appropriate. Avoid using terms like ‘passed away’ or ‘sleeping.’ “Explain things in a way the child can relate to – when someone dies their body stops working, they stop breathing, they no longer talk, play, feel pain or cold,” Evans says.
Funeral, memorial, celebration of life or afternoon to remember – Explain that this is a time when family and friends gather to tell stories, support each other and express how much the person meant to them. It’s an opportunity to grieve openly and share tears, which simply mean we care. “When children don’t understand why people are crying, they can become confused and feel they have caused the sadness. Some children will even act out to try to change the energy and assume the blame for highly charged emotions around them.
Burial – Explain that the casket will be placed in a special car, called a hearse or coach, and taken to the cemetery. There will be a big hole into which the casket is lowered. The hole is filled with dirt and eventually grass will grow.
Cremation – It’s essential that children know cremation does not hurt. Avoid using words like “burn” and “fire,” sharing instead that by using heat, the body is changed into particles that look like sand.
How to support children following a death
One way to help a child feel connected and involved following a death is by encouraging them to participate in a memorial. They might draw pictures to place in the casket, select photographs and share special stories, choose music or provide a poem for the service. They might choose a special item to give to the deceased, act as a pallbearer, carry flowers or create a table setting in memory of their loved one on a special day.
“Look for clues as to how much they wish to be involved and let them know they can change their mind. Giving a child the ability to make choices provides a sense of empowerment, crucial at a time when most feel powerless,” Evans says.
Open communication and age-appropriate information will help ensure children are prepared. “A child’s imagination is often worse than the reality of an open, honest conversation. When we don’t know the answer to a question, it’s OK to say ‘I don’t know but let’s find someone who does,’” Evans says, noting the Sands team is there to help. “When it comes to those difficult questions, we often have the experience to help parents find the answers.”
For more information about supporting children in the event of a death, stop by Sands Funeral Chapel in Colwood or visit online at arbormemorial.ca/en/sands-colwood. Additional resources are also available from Victoria Hospice.