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Children, Death, and Learning to Grieve

Most children are exposed to sex far too early and death far too late. In our sex-saturated culture, it’s nearly impossible to shield our children from sensual images. It’s a task which many parents should take more seriously. The longer our children can go without seeing sexual images, the better they will be. While parents should start talking to their children at an early age about sexuality (and eventually sex) we should work hard to keep their eyes innocent for as long as possible. (See: How to Talk to Your Kids About Sex)

While we should shield our children from sex, we should not be so quick to shield them from death. Never in the history of humanity has death been so separated from life. This is for two reasons:

In agrarian cultures, death is an everyday part of life. Pets die. Animals are killed for food. The cycle of life and death is continually repeated. But in our technological culture, we do not see death as often.

In the days of old, medicine wasn’t as advanced and death was more common. I’ll never forget asking my grandmother about her family history and listening to her list person after person who died at an early age. Childhood illnesses, child-bearing, and other conditions took many more people than are common today.

As we have become less familiar with death, we have pushed it to the periphery of society. While hospice care and funeral homes are a gift to society, they have pushed the dying and dead to the fringe of our experience. Most people die in a hospital and are buried by the funeral home instead of dying at home and lying in state in the living room as people pay their last respects.

All of this has created a generation ignorant of death. Nowhere is that ignorance more apparent than in a parent’s confusion (and often, refusal) in talking to their children about death. Most parents would rather talk to their children about sex than death. This is a disservice to us and them. (See: Lies We Tell Others About Death)

Shielding our children from death does not protect their innocence; it simply teaches them not to talk about the sorrows of life. While parents may think they are helping their children, they are actually stunting their emotional growth.

Parents must talk to their children about death. In age appropriate ways, they must take the time to answer the questions, communicate the relevant information, and allow a child to experience the sadness which comes from loss.

Many parents have the wrong perspective about death. A parent’s job isn’t to save their children from grief, but to walk with them through sorrow. (See: Walking with My Son Through the Death of His Grandfather) This begins with a parent confronting death themselves. We must find a comfort level in openly discussing our thoughts, feelings, and fears regarding death. We must model for our children that it’s okay to talk about death, have questions, not know all the answers, and be sad whenever we experience loss.

7 Ways a Parent Can Help Their Child Understand Death

1. Begin early in life by explaining that things live and die. When the pet fish dies, don’t replace it without telling. When the family dog dies, don’t say it ran away. Let them know what happened.

2. Throughout childhood talk about it with your kids when you lose friends or loved ones. Let them know you are sad. Tell them about the funeral. Show them the obituary in the paper. Normalize the experience.

3. Attend a funeral. A child’s first funeral should not be of a grandparent or close relative. Sometimes this is unavoidable, but avoid if at all possible. By taking them to a funeral of someone they barely know, they can process the actual event rather than deep grief.

4. When a loved one dies, make the children part of the grieving process. Besides your own grief, consider what your children are going through and assist them with their sorrow. Talk about it. Let them draw pictures. Find a time and space where they are free to talk.

5. Let your children see you grieve. While it might be wise to shield a small child from the depths of grief, we are too quick to grieve in private and put on a good face in public. No matter their age, let your child know that you are sad and why you are sad. If you don’t, they will recognize something is wrong and be prone to write the false story that they have caused it.

6. Openly, and fondly, talk about the deceased. Part of normalizing death is showing children that when a person is gone, they are not forgotten. People continually tell me how meaningful it is when someone shares a good memory of a loved one who has died. When we fail to talk about the deceased out of fear of making someone sad, we add to their sadness by making them think their family member is forgotten.

7. When the time comes, support your child through grief rather than protecting them from it. At some point, death will get far too close to your child. It might start with a grandparent or other family member, but eventually it will be a classmate or friend. In that moment, do everything in your power to assist them through the sorrow. Understand that in those moments you are teaching them how to one day grieve your death. Get help from a pastor, counselor, or trusted friend. (See: 4 Things Never to Say to Someone Grieving)

Death is an unavoidable part of life, but parents often take the wrong approach regarding death and their children. Few topics provide such an opportunity to show our children love and support like the topic of death. When we parent well through the tough times of life, we create a loving, stable climate in which our children can experience emotional growth and understanding.



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