The passing of a loved one is never an easy time, especially when it means explaining what has happened to young children. None of us like to think about death and it is often a subject not discussed until you are faced with the sadness of losing a meaningful person in your life.
I have lost close relatives who, even though they were older when they passed, have touched me deeply when their lives ended. Until recently I sheltered my young children from the knowledge of death. Funerals that I attended were done without them, and grieving was a solemn affair often taking place once the kids were safely tucked in bed so I could be with my thoughts and memories.
Often at these times I wonder how to broach the subject with my children. When is the right time to talk to them about death? What age should they be before you explain what a funeral is? How do you possibly bring up such a subject with a child who cried for hours when one of their favourite toys broke beyond repair? This internal conflict as a parent about the right thing to do by your children is all encompassing. I want to protect my children and keep the light inside them shinning, the light that sees life as innocent, bright and happy. It is the hardest part of life, dealing with the passing of someone who holds a special place in your life. I don’t think there is ever a right time, or a right way, the very best we can do as parents is follow our instincts and be sensitive to any reactions that comes our way.
The recent passing of my Grandmother, “Nanna Babcia” as the kids call her, saw me packing the children in the car for the long drive interstate to be with family and attend the funeral. I had purposefully not told the children of her passing as I was keenly aware that they may well mistake their Great Grandmother for my mum, their Nanna (with whom they have a very deep connection). I had decided the best time to explain to them the circumstance was when they could physically see that their Nanna was still alive and well.
Master 2, I believed, would not have any comprehension of the situation so I let him happily play with his trains whilst I sat with his two brothers, Master 6 and Master 4. I spoke about their Nanna Babcia and explained that she had died, that her heart stopped working, and that she had many years of a weak heart and other ailments. When they asked why the doctors couldn’t fix her I had said that they tried but it wasn’t to be. My mother put it best when she said “her heart was like a battery that had run out of power”, which my boys quickly retorted “can’t you just plug it in and recharge it if it’s like a battery – that’s what mum does!” It didn’t take long for the tears to flow and both boys seemed not to want to talk any longer, rather I left them to process what I had told them and sat with them as they fiddled with their toys.
Surprisingly the way I had expected each child to react was the complete opposite of how they did. Master 6 (who I expected to be quite emotional) was trying to process the knowledge with more knowledge – he wanted to know the process of death and what happens after. It was Master 4 who I had expected to be rather stoic and be more analytical, rather, he is the one who would sob intermittently and had taken the news very hard. The day before the funeral we came together as a family and had a day reminiscent of my childhood – a table full of traditional Polish food my Babcia would always prepare, children playing soccer in the back yard and family all together. As I told the boys, it was a farewell party for Nanna Babcia, Master 4 said she should have been there, and he was right, she should have (and in my heart I believe she was!)
The funeral was lovely and sad all at the same time. My boys were able to take part in the service which was very special for them to be included. The most surprising thing was that Master 2 (whom rarely gets upset) was crying, with a sadness that is rarely seen of him, whenever the church organ was playing, showing how truly powerful music can be on our emotions. My boys knew that the coffin was Nanna Babcia’s special beautiful box that would be buried at a quiet and beautiful location for her final resting place, but that she had died many days prior and was with the Angels – no longer in her body.
A burial, perhaps more than a funeral, is a very raw and emotional time, and can be very confronting for adults, let along children. Master 4 told me days later that her special box should not have been put in the ground, but taken to the doctor to fix her. I am glad he is telling me his thoughts and not keeping them to himself. Together we will process what has happened and work through his feelings how ever long the process takes.
Whilst I don’t proclaim to know all the answers, I am letting my children lead the way with their grief and ensuring I have the time, any time they want or need, to help them process the knowledge of death that they have been given and the passing of a loved one.
How have you broached the subject of death with young children if you have ever had to?