Death in the family


In his fascinating book “The Time Machine,” H.G. Wells’ character travels to a place in the future where a group of people called the Eloi live in a seemingly perfect setting. For the most part, they live a carefree life, but each night creatures called the Morlocks, come from underground and steal away with several Eloi and eat them. Yet the Eloi never mention the Morlocks. The Eloi behave as if ignoring the obvious danger of the Morlocks will keep them safe. 

When it comes to death and dying, we often do the same thing. We don’t like to think about dying. It is morbid, scary, and depressing. But death is a fact of life. Yet any insurance salesman or funeral home director will confirm that people will do about anything to avoid talking about death – as if by not talking about it they can pretend it won’t happen to them.

When helping children work through the difficulty of death, I often use the metaphor of living next door to a mean dog. The dog is on a chain, but if you pretend it isn’t there, you can easily stray to close and the dog can hurt you. On the other hand, acknowledging that the mean dog is there and knowing how long the chain is will keep you safe. The mean dog can bark and growl all he wants.

Grief is like the mean dog. It isn’t going away, but knowing that it is there helps you develop strategies to manage it and once you know some management strategies, the dog can bark all he wants, but he can’t hurt you. Here are some things to remember when helping a child deal with grief.

It is OK to cry. However, if your children see you sad, make sure you also let them see ways that you cope with your sadness. Talk about it with them.

Talk about death as a fact – not happy, not sad – just the fact. Let your child express the affect he/she feels in regard to the death. When the child asks for the tenth time, “Why did daddy die?” you can say, “Daddy was in an accident in the car. When you think about that, what kinds of things do you feel?”

Don’t ever refer to death as “sleeping.” Young children take words literally. They won’t understand why the deceased won’t wake up and/or they may be afraid to go to sleep themselves.

Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” Where do we go when we die? Why do we die? Why did God let daddy die? I don’t have answers to most of these questions. One response might be, “Those are hard questions. I’m not really sure. What do you think?”

Respond to the affect rather than the presented issue. “Why won’t daddy come back?” can be addressed with, “I know you are very sad because you miss daddy a lot.” Even if you could answer the question adequately, the feeling of sadness and being alone is really the bigger problem.

Don’t avoid the topic. A difficult issue like this isn’t resolved with one conversation. Address your child’s concerns at the moment, but also look for opportunities to let him or her talk more later. 

Remember the good times. For example, you might say, “You know what sweetie, as we drive to soccer practice, I remember that daddy used to always love to see you play. He loved you so much.”  Often parents are afraid to bring this up because it might make the child sad – and it might. But one part of healing is learning to remember the good times. 

Have your child write a letter to the person who is deceased. If the child can’t write, let him/her dictate it to you. Then seal the letter up and let the child put it in a special place – on a shelf or taped to a mirror. That way when she sees it, she can remember the person she loved and she can remember the things she wanted to say.

Grief takes time for adults and children alike. A therapist, spiritual guide, or trusted friend can help process the many feelings surrounding death. Facing the grieving journey head on helps healing being. 

Gregory K. Moffatt, Ph.D.