What is the best way to explain death to a child?



The popularity of bestselling memoirs such as When Breath Becomes Air and The Bright Hour, both meditations on death by authors who died young, suggest that death is a topic many of us like to think about (while alone, reading silently) – yet, it is still a subject many of us are woefully bad at talking about, particularly when it comes to discussing it with kids.

We all need a better “death education,” says Dr. Kathy Kortes-Miller, an associate professor of social work at Ontario’s Lakehead University and author of the new book Talking About Death Won’t Kill You: The Essential Guide to End-of-Life Conversations. Like a new website launched last November by the Canadian Virtual Hospice, the book takes what remains a taboo subject and shows how to talk about it openly and honestly. The Globe and Mail’s Dave McGinn spoke to Kortes-Miller about having that conversation with children.

Why do we have such difficulty talking to children about death?

As parents we are cultured and conditioned to protect our children. Our generation, we didn’t really learn how to talk about it. Before I was a parent, I was really good at talking to children about dying and death. And then I became a parent myself and found that it was a lot harder than I thought it was.

What’s the risk of ignoring the subject, or not bringing it up unless they do?

It keeps it as an unknown and as a scary and almost a taboo topic. We [need to] recognize that this is a transition event in our life and one that we can prepare for and one that we can learn about, and by doing so, that’s going to help us to live life more fully and prepare ourselves for the end of life.

What is the best way to explain death to a child?

It depends on the age of the child, of course. But one of the ways to do it is by looking around at nature. Kids are inquisitive. They’re interested in how things die and what happens to them. So often they’ll see things in nature and ask questions. Those are really good ways to get the conversation started. As they get a little bit older they start to watch TV and they start to read books. There is a lot of dying and death in media that children are exposed to, and those are also really good conversation starters.

You mention that nature often presents an opportunity to talk about death. I’ve been guilty of telling my kids a dead squirrel they saw was just sleeping.

That’s an easy one to do. We’re almost scared to use the D words – dead, dying and death. But we confuse them if we use euphemisms. Having worked with young kids in a counselling role as a social worker in a hospice unit, when we talk about “oh, grandpa’s just gone for the big sleep,” instead of he’s died, kids get nightmares. Kids don’t want to go to bed at night because grandpa went to sleep and he didn’t wake up.

When a child wonders what death is, is there a good description of the physical process that won’t scare kids?

I would sometimes talk about it from a physiological perspective. The reality is that sometimes we get really, really sick or we get old and our body no longer functions the way we need it to, and as a result, some of the things such as our heart or our brain stop working, and as a result, our body dies. It stops working. And that’s kind of the way I would begin that conversation. I would leave it then on the young person to ask some questions, to see what they want to know more about.

You say in the book that bedtime can be a good time for these conversations. Why?

Bedtime can be great depending on the age of your child. Often, there are rituals and time spent at bed reading books and tucking in and doing all that stuff, which is a great time to have conversations. As children get older and we move in to more of what I call the chauffeuring ages, car-time conversations are really good too, particularly because the kids don’t have to make eye contact.

Is there a euphemism for death that you loathe most?

One that’s probably most common is the idea that people “pass away.” I talk about this story of Sam in the book when he got really confused because he was in school and in school they talk about passing to the next grade, and the only person he knew who had passed was his mom. So that one I think particularly for children is a big one.

Kids usually seem capable of processing much more than we give them credit for.

Yes. For sure.

Helping a child or teenager who is grieving the death of a parent or loved one is always difficult. What do you tell them? How do you help them understand matters? The Canadian Virtual Hospice recently launched a website, KidsGrief.ca, to help answer those questions. It is especially important to talk to young kids about the four C’s, says Andrea Warnick, a Toronto-based registered psychotherapist and co-lead on the project.

“The four C’s are four common concerns that kids have when either somebody’s seriously ill, dying or has died in their life. We’re really trying to encourage families to address these even if kids aren’t bringing them up,” she says.

  • Cause: Am I some way responsible? “A lot of parents are really surprised when they find out that their child has been thinking that they did something to cause the illness or death in their family,” Warnick says. She has worked with children who thought their mom got throat cancer from yelling at them to clean their rooms. “We really want families to let their kids know that this is not their fault, they did not cause this in any way,” she says.
  • Catch: “A lot of families will avoid the word of the actual illness. So as opposed to saying, ‘Daddy has cancer,’ or ‘Dad has ALS,’ they’ll say, ‘Daddy’s sick.’ And for kids whose reference for sickness is that it gets spread across the daycare, or one person gets the flu and then the next person does, that scares them and they often think it’s going to happen to them to or they can catch it,” Warnick says. You can still hug your dad, still kiss him. You can still cuddle.
  • Cure: You have to let your kids know they can’t cure it. “This is not in their control,” Warnick says. “A lot of kids will use the power of their imaginations to come up with pacts, promising a higher power that they will never fight with their mom again if they cure them, and then of course they fight. I’ve had a number of kids feeling very responsible that they did something that could have happened otherwise.”
  • Care: This is one of kids’ biggest fears. “If there’s a parent or a primary caregiver who is ill or dying, who is going to take care of me?” Warnick says. Or if the person has already died, is this going to happen to my other parent or whoever it is who is now taking care of them? “A lot of kids are really worried about that. And that’s where we really walk families through how to talk about that. Some families are tempted to say no, it won’t happen to me. And we can’t promise a child that. So we really encourage families to say: Most likely I’m going to live to be very old, but if anything does happen to me, this is who is going to take care of you. Hopefully, guardians are picked out. Let them know what the plan is.”

Complete Article HERE!


Helping Children Come to Terms With A Death In The Family


We often try to shelter our children rather than help them address the loss of a parent, grandparent or family friend

One of the biggest mistakes people make is waiting too long to tell a child a loved one is dying.


When a child is facing the death of a loved one, our first instinct is often to try to shelter them. Unfortunately, following that instinct may do more harm than good.

One of the biggest mistakes people make is waiting too long to tell a child a loved one is dying, says Andrea Warnick, a Guelph, Ont. grief counsellor with more than 20 years’ experience.

Warnick says she understands the reluctance. It is difficult to tell the children — except it is usually worse to say nothing, in part because kids will often use their imaginations to fill in the unknown details, which may be even worse than reality. And they will often blame themselves.

“It’s never too early,” Warnick insists. “You don’t need to wait for absolutes.”

You can simply say that the doctors are concerned that Mom could die, she says, by way of example. Kids need to feel that they can trust the adults in their lives to be honest with them, which is important for resilience.

“It’s better for them to find out from those who are closest to them,” she continues, adding “there’s less anxiety when they know what’s going on.”

And when children have only one parent left, it’s important they know what the plan is if the remaining parent dies.

Warnick cautions against waiting for children to bring the subject up. She says it’s the adults’ responsibility to open the conversation because children will try to protect parents by not bringing it up.

When talking to children, use clear language. “Don’t just say, Mom is sick. Call the illness or condition by its name. Avoid using euphemisms for death and dying. Don’t say we lost Grandpa or that Grandma is in your heart. “Kids can be very literal,” Warnick says.

With teenagers it can be easier to talk when they are in a car or when doing another activity such as going for a hike or doing a puzzle. “It doesn’t need to be a matter of ‘We are going to sit down and talk,’” she explains.

On the other hand, she advises against forcing children to talk. Let children take the lead on how much they want to know, she says. “Encourage them to ask questions and share concerns but let them know they are allowed to say ‘pass’ if they don’t feel like talking.”

Warnick isn’t surprised that many of us don’t know how to support someone, child or adult, who is grieving. She doesn’t mince words. “Ours is a death-denying and grief-illiterate society,” she says.

Her travels have taken her to other countries such as Botswana which have a rich story-telling culture and people freely share stories about their ancestors.

There is a misconception that you get over a death and move on, says Warnick. “We think we’re doing it wrong if it comes up again,” she says. “But this is natural… kids grieve in chunks. They will revisit it as they develop.” Children will also experience joy in between the sad times, and that’s okay too, she says.

Warnick adds that it’s okay for adults to cry in front of the children. This models a healthy grief response.

Another mistaken belief is that death ends a relationship, continues Warnick. “A child whose father has died still has a dad. Don’t try to sever the connection,” she says. Instead, children can be encouraged to participate in rituals or activities that memorialize the person who has died. For example, on the birthday of their loved one who has died, Warnick knows of one family who do “one act for the earth” in his memory because that was important to him.

Warnick attributes her own interest in helping those who are grieving to the death of her aunt when she was young. Warnick’s cousins were just children when their mother died. Once they were adults, they wanted to know more about their mom so they invited family and friends to share their memories on the 20th anniversary of her death. They were comforted by the outpouring that came from friends and family who were glad of the opportunity to remember her.

When an infant dies, people often struggle with how to best support the family. “The significance is often not recognized by society,” says Warnick, who points out that part of the grief is for the “unlived future.”

However, Warnick insists it is still possible to create meaningful rituals to express the grief, although it may require being creative. For instance, you can light a candle in memory of the child and talk about how you wish he or she was still here. “Families can nurture the relationship and hold space for the part that is not physical,” she says.

Grief is messy and involves many emotions including anger, fear, loss of confidence, shame, and guilt. It is non-linear and you don’t get over it in a few months or a year, emphasizes Warnick, who also cautions against praising children for “being strong” for holding in their emotions. This sends the wrong message to children who should feel free to express themselves.

If children cry, adults shouldn’t feel the need to fix it. “You can bear witness to their feelings by listening to them. The goal is not to fix the heartbreak. It’s to learn how to live with a broken heart.”

Strategies for supporting children who are grieving

When you want to talk to a child about a difficult subject, start by creating an appropriate space with minimal disturbances. Get on the same level as the child.

Begin by asking what the child understands. “I’m wondering what you understand about what happened…”

Ask if the child has overheard anything he/she didn’t understand. “I’m wondering if you’ve heard other people talking about any information that’s confusing to you?”

Words are powerful. Use correct terminology. Call the illness or condition by its name. Avoid euphemisms for death.

Don’t praise someone for “being strong.”

Don’t try to sever the connection with the person who died.

Encourage kids to ask questions or share worries.

Answer honestly using simple, concrete language.

Be honest when you don’t have the answer.

Explain that grief is a natural response and not a problem to be solved.

Let kids know it’s okay to feel happy and still enjoy life even when they are grieving.

Signs that more support is needed

Seek out a counsellor if there are signs of:

  • Self-harming behaviour
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Chronic physical symptoms
  • Panic attacks
  • Sleeping/eating disturbances
  • Risk-taking behaviour

Kid-friendly explanations

“Dead means that a body has stopped working and will never work again. The body cannot move, breathe, think, feel, see, smell, talk…The body does not feel pain or hunger or fear.”

“Suicide is when a person causes her or his body to stop working. The body dies.”

Warnick prefers to say that a person died from suicide rather than committed suicide.

“Cremation is when a dead body is put through very high heat causing it to break down into small pieces that look like sand/dirt.”

Grief is all the different feelings and thoughts that occur when something really difficult happens in life. It can include anger, guilt, shame, loneliness, resentment, sadness, fear, regret, etc.

Address the four Cs

Children will want to know:

Did I Cause it? Can I Catch it? Could I have Cured it? Who is going to take Care of me?

Complete Article HERE!


What terminally ill children taught this doctor about how to live


Dr Alastair McAlpine asked some of young patients what gave them joy and meaning – their answers surprised him

Dr Alastair McAlpine asked some of young patients what gave them joy and meaning. Their answers were surprising and positive.

By Alastair McAlpine

As a pediatric palliative care physician, I spend my days working with children who have life-threatening or life-limiting illnesses and their families.

Although many people think of us as the harbingers of death, in reality, doctors like us aim to maximize quality of life, especially when that life is likely to be shortened. We recognize that these children are so much more than just their illness and that they are part of a family. We focus not just on their medical needs but also on their psychosocial and spiritual ones as well.

Last year, as part of my diploma in pediatric palliative care, I was tasked with evaluating the attitudes of my little patients towards life. I asked some of them what gave them joy and meaning. Their answers were surprising and positive.

In fact, they made me completely re-evaluate my relationships with friends and family. I now spend more time with the people I love and I tell them how I feel about them. I have tried to make kindness a priority in my life.

I decided to share some of the children’s responses on Twitter, to provide some perspective to the fractiousness that is so prevalent there. The response was overwhelming, to say the least (my thread has been retweeted nearly 100,000 times).

The kids were not hung up on “stuff”. What mattered were the things that we all intrinsically know are important, but often forget in the hustle and bustle of daily living. The biggest takeaway for me is that the happiest, most meaningful moments were simple ones that did not require vast sums of money or effort to attain, but instead embraced the importance of human connection. It was also surprising how frequently the so-called small things were the ones that turned out to have enormous significance at the end.

Here are the top six lessons that my little patients taught me about life:

1. Spending time with family and pets is incredibly important.

Whether talking, laughing, playing, or just sharing silence, time spent with loved ones and pets was priceless. Towards the end, the only regret many of the kids had was that they didn’t get to spend more time “with mum and dad and my big brother”.

2. Humor and laughter are vital.

Even though they were squarely facing death, these kids derived amusement from the same things that normal children do: silly antics; clumsy adults; slapstick humor. Laughing is so important for many reasons but key among them is that it reduces pain.

Finding levity in the face of overwhelming tragedy can be difficult, and some of the parents dug into unimaginably deep wells of courage to provide mirth when their hearts were breaking. One dad pulled funny faces through his tears. But it always paid off. And whether ill or healthy, children will always be delighted by farting.

3. Good stories told and read by a loved one offer inspiration.

The written word and vivid fantasies told with basic toys enabled children to create alternate realities away from the often sterile hospital environment. They were sources of inspiration to continue fighting, even when the “battle” seemed lost. After all, if Harry Potter could continue to face Voldemort, then they could defeat their own “monsters”.

Stories also allowed the children to construct a meaningful narrative to explain the often incomprehensible diseases they were so bravely facing. Many believe that our ability to create and share stories is what defines us as human beings, and these kids demonstrated that. Stories inspired, captivated and transported them.

4. Swimming in the sea, playing on the sand and eating ice cream (even on a cold day) are simple, memorable pleasures.

Children vividly remembered the simple pleasures that cost little except the effort of being truly present; the moments that may have seemed small at the time were often, upon reflection, priceless.

5. Children as young as four worried about what would happen to their parents.

Many of the kids had made peace with their fates but wanted to protect mum and dad from additional heartache. This role-reversal is surprisingly common and indicates that children are far more attuned to their bodies than we think they are. Death is the elephant in the room. Part of my job is to encourage honesty and to get everyone talking, even when it’s painful.

6. Simple acts of kindness were treasured and remembered until the very end.

Kindness, whether from the classmate who offered a sandwich or a nurse’s smile, was the virtue that made the biggest impact on the children. They loved kind people and remembered acts of kindness until the very end. The last words I heard from one little girl were: “Thank you for holding my hand when I was scared.”

None of these revelations are new or earth-shattering, but when they come from children who are bravely facing death, an extra level of profundity is added, which has prompted many (including myself) to re-evaluate just what is important with the very limited time we have. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to the beach to eat an ice cream.

Complete Article HERE!


Morbid? No – Coco is the latest children’s film with a crucial life lesson


Some say we’re forcing children to face issues beyond their years. But films can help make them resilient, self-aware adults


At the weekend Disney Pixar’s new film, Coco, hit cinemas. It topped the UK box office and has already won a Golden Globe, so you can probably guess what it’s about. Princesses, right? Or dinosaurs, maybe.

Nope. It’s death: actual send-the-12-year-old-hero-to the-afterlife-to-meet-his-dead-relatives-type death. Set during the Mexican Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead), when people remember their departed loved ones, its core message is that those we lose live on in our memories. Speaking of memory, there’s also a character with senile dementia. Really kid-friendly stuff.

Children’s films have always had life lessons at their heart. And while most of them have traditionally sat in the positive platitudes category – work hard, be brave, do the right thing – there have been some home truths over the years, too: people are cruel (the Dumbo lesson); you’ll outgrow your childhood and its trappings (thanks, Toy Story 2).

But in recent years, as young people’s lives have become more complex and challenging than ever before, kids’ movies have stepped up, tackling increasingly tricky subjects. If there’s something you’re loth to talk to a child about, chances are there’s a film that will do it for you.

Death is one tough subject that has always been common – even if not quite as central as it is in Coco. Disney’s first heroine, Snow White, was an orphan, and they were soon offing loved ones on screen, starting with Bambi’s mum. In fact, a 2014 British Medical Journal study found that, proportionally, main characters die on screen in more children’s animated films than dramatic films for adults.

By 1994, The Lion King’s Simba was experiencing real grief, and in Toy Story 3 (2010) the heroes slid towards seemingly certain death, hand-in-hand, eyes closed, accepting. But they escaped: death was still a plot point. These days it is the plot.

If you’re thinking life can be as painful as death, modern kids’ films have got that covered too. Take the opening sequence of Pixar’s Up (2009). You know, the one that shows you how dead you are inside by how long you can last without blubbing. It charts every punishing blow of adult life from losing a baby to money troubles to repeatedly putting your dreams on hold.

In the last decade, Disney films have also turned their gaze outwards, championing society’s mistreated and marginalised. Disney’s 2013 megahit Frozen was a feminist triumph, with two kick-ass female leads and a finale centred on sisterhood. It also briefly showed what many believe was Disney’s first same-sex couple, complete with cute kids. And it opened a conversation about parental abuse. Not the overt torture of Disney’s early wicked stepmothers, but a more insidious brand that saw Elsa’s parents shame her for being different.

In 2015, Pixar’s Inside Out tackled what is often the very trickiest subject for children to understand – their own feelings. Set inside the head of a young girl struggling with life, it personified her four key emotions, and concluded that it’s actually totally fine to feel sad, something any child struggling with depression will find deeply reassuring.

And if that wasn’t grown-up enough, 2016 saw Disney release Zootropolis, an anthropomorphic comedy with a hard-hitting message about racial inclusion – highly subversive given the xenophobic political rhetoric that was rife at the time.

Some may say we’re forcing kids to face issues that are beyond their years – that we should go back to the old days where, aside from the odd bereavement, most troubles were solved with a little courage and a singsong. But times have changed, and the way children experience life has changed, too. There are new pressures, new fears, new opportunities, and the chance to mix with people whose identities and choices are, thankfully, being newly embraced by society.

Films are the perfect way for children to understand all this – not only via storylines that they can relate to but in a safe space where they can ask questions freely.

What’s more, the common reference point that films provide means that answering those questions becomes easier for parents, and a more open and honest conversation can develop. Lets face it, most kids won’t even bat an eyelid at the stuff adults worry will shock or confuse them. Kids accept the society we present to them, meaning films that normalise any and every expression of what it means to be human are a key tool in moving us towards a more inclusive society.

But perhaps most importantly of all, films can help kids cope better when life’s struggles hit them for real. They’ve already experienced some of the associated emotions vicariously. They’ve seen how the characters handle the situation. Perhaps they’ve even thought about what they’d do in the same position. If modern kids’ films can help the next generation grow into resilient, self-aware, inclusive adults, I say: keep them coming.

Complete Article HERE!


In a new book for kids, the son of Grim Reaper offers lessons about death and dying


Portland writer and illustrator Winslow Furber wrote the book to help parents and kids talk about mortality.

Winslow Furber wrote and illustrated “A Very Young Reaper,” about Tim Reaper, far right, the son of the Grim Reaper, to help families talk about death and dying.


As a parent, Winslow Furber wanted a better way to talk to his kids about death. As a creative person, he was seeking an outlet for his ideas.

The result of both yearnings is Furber’s first children’s book, “A Very Young Reaper,” which tells the tale of young Tim Reaper, the son of Kim and Grim Reaper. Everything Tim touches dies, leaving him sad and alone because no one wants to meet the son of the Grim Reaper. Until one day, when he meets a very old porcupine who teaches the boy that what makes him different than everyone else is also what makes him special.

Furber wrote and illustrated the book, issued by an Indiana-based on-demand publishing house, to help families talk about death and dying with kids, as well as the concept of death with dignity. The book also speaks to the idea of adapting your world and lifestyle to accommodate people who are different and who possess peculiar, other abilities.

Furber, who lives in Portland and works as a building contractor, has been thinking about death with dignity and related issues since college, when his roommate’s mother suffered a difficult, painful death from cancer. “I’ve had some experience with the death of pets and having to have that conversation with my own two children,” he said. “I just thought it would be nice to have something that works around the whole death-with-dignity theme. I started thinking about a very young reaper – the son of Grim Reaper – and how he would grow up, overcome obstacles and come to grips with his own unique circumstances. How does he adapt to the fact that everything he touches dies?”

“A Very Young Reaper.” By Winslow Furber.
AuthorHouse. $16.99.

Furber is sharing proceeds of book sales with the Center for Grieving Children, the Animal Refuge League and the Death with Dignity National Center.

Furber, 54, has always had artistic instincts, but spent most of his professional life working for others. He was a financial planner for many years – “the worst mistake I could have made” – and worked as director of development and maintenance for SailMaine, which supports community sailing programs in the state. He’s an avid sailor and loves spreading his family’s love of sailing with other families.

A few years ago, he went off on his own as a contractor, enabling him to work for himself and balance his many interests. He went to Middlebury College, where he majored in sculpture and also studied math and physics. He also makes jewelry, and ultimately would like to make art all the time. “I’d like to stop swinging a hammer and tell more stories,” he said.

The book is a step in that direction. He attended a children’s book conference in New York last February and began writing the book soon after. He pitched “A Very Young Reaper” to several publishers and ultimately decided to go the self-publishing route because he didn’t want to wait for a publisher to come around to his idea.

“I sent it out to six or eight publishers, and got one to talk to me. The publisher said, ‘It’s a beautiful story, but you are going to find it very difficult to find a publisher willing to take a flier on it,’” he said. “I felt it was important to get it out. I would have loved to have had something when my kids were little, when the bunny died. That’s what Tim does. He helps people who are old or sick.”

Complete Article HERE!


‘There will be an afterwards’: how a mother prepared her sons for her death


When Kate Gross was dying, aged 36, she told her sons there would be life after her death. But how would they actually cope with losing her?

‘Afterwards, you will need to …’ Kate Gross with her twin sons Isaac, left, and Oscar

By Jean Gross
When my grandson Isaac was very small, his mother, Kate, would say, “I’ll miss you” when she travelled away for work. Later, when he was three, I remember him running after her in the park when he couldn’t quite keep up with her, crying: “Don’t miss me, Mummy.” To him, “to miss” meant “to leave”. “Don’t miss me, Mummy”, meant don’t leave me.

But, in the end, Kate did have to leave him, and his twin brother, Oscar. When the boys were five and she was 36, she died. It was Christmas Day 2014, minutes before the boys woke up to ask their dad, Billy, if it was time to open their stockings.

In the months before Christmas, once Kate had been told her cancer was terminal, she came up with a way in which we could all talk about a future without her. She called it Afterwards. “Afterwards,” she would say “you will need to …”, “Afterwards, Billy will …” Now, with some distance between us and that worst of Christmases, I want to write about Oscar and Isaac’s Afterwards – how they have managed, and whether Kate’s fears for them, or her best hopes, have come true.

It is a positive story. The boys are now sturdy, happy eight-year-olds. We have learned, with surprise and relief, how resilient they are, and how easily they have taken to the fact that their mum is not here – and yet is still here, in the fabric of her house, in the memories, in the ways in which we constantly tell them they resemble her.

Initially, the boys each reacted very differently to their loss. Oscar is stoic and factual by nature, with a passion for numbers. When we told the boys their mum was going to die, he asked how old people were when they got cancer. Billy said it was usually when you were old; their mum was unlucky.

“How old is Mum?” asked Oscar.

“Thirty-six,” said Billy.

Then, “And how old are you, Dad?”

Oscar was working it all out, with numbers as his guide, and Billy knew to tell him that he wasn’t likely to get cancer, too.

Of the two boys, Isaac has always been a little more worried about love and loss, always at a different point on the objects-facts v people-feelings scale. After Kate died, he initially had more hurt places than Oscar – manifest in tummyaches at school and a wish to stay in and “help” his kind teacher, or occasional oblique insights into sadness. I remember being in the car taking the boys to change from school clothes into smart new jumpers and shirts for Kate’s funeral. I told them that some people might cry at the funeral. “Why?” asked Isaac. It’s just something grownups do, I said. “Why?” persisted Isaac. I said they would be sad because they missed Mummy. There was a pause, then Isaac said: “I had a dream.” I asked what his dream was about. “I was on a train and Dad wasn’t and the train went off without him.”

But apart from these brief moments, there has been little sign of grief or worry. Oscar likes to tell me his bad news, like a cat bringing a mouse it has caught and tenderly laying it on your pillow. Once told, it becomes less important. But the bad news has never been about Kate, only grazed knees, fluffing a save in football, missing his computer time at school. Her death did, however, offend his sense of justice. “It’s not fair,” he said when we first told him she would die soon. “The other children in my class will have mummies.”

Kate and her mother, Jean Gross, with Isaac, left, and Oscar

Grieving, I think, asks that you live in the remembered past or a denuded future. Oscar and Isaac still pretty much live in the present. Nor have they a great capacity for introspection. Once I told them they had been unlucky to lose their mum. “Why?” asked Isaac. They didn’t understand; they were unable to examine their experiences, as distinct from simply living them.

There is little point in expecting young children to be sentimental. The summer after Kate died, we were on holiday in France, visiting a church; the boys saw candles and asked if they could light some. For Mummy, we said, and thought of her. But for them what mattered were the immediate sensory experiences – the physical act of striking a match, and the satisfying clunk as the offering money fell to the bottom of the collection box. Things don’t stand for things when you are small. They simply are.

I have often wondered why is it that some children cope with adversity, while others falter and fall. Research tells us that resilience is linked to social support – a sense of belonging to a community, and having at least one adult in your life who believes in you as a worthwhile person. And they have social supports in abundance – Billy, their dad, of course, and all the family and Kate and Billy’s friends. Just as important has been the boys’ own social circle. The children at their small, loving, Catholic school, and their parents, have closed around Oscar and Isaac and created a force field that keeps the Dark Side well away.

Science has been helpful to the boys, too; their dad is, after all, a scientist. They wanted, and got, proper explanations about cancer cells and death. A few months after Kate died, we heard them chatting in bed: “Everything dies eventually,” said Oscar.

“No one lives to infinity,” said Isaac.

Religion, doled out at school, has given the boys a language in which to talk about their loss. People often told them that their mum was in heaven, and they accepted this. In one bathtime discussion, Oscar told me: “There must be heaven.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because if there wasn’t, where would God live?” he said triumphantly.

Even so, you have to be careful. One of Kate’s friends, whose wife died when his three girls were small, told us that one of them had said she wanted to be run over by a bus, “so I can go to heaven and be with Mummy”. As for, “God took your mummy because he wanted her to be with him in heaven,” I can’t think of anything more likely to make a child seriously annoyed with such a selfish higher power.

Angels are safer territory. At a birthday party, when the children were colouring in angels, Isaac said: “My mum’s an angel.” Oscar agreed: “Yes, she is.” But the angel for the top of the Christmas tree got broken last year and this year we had to get a star instead. I wondered if the boys were confused, what with these broken and unbroken angels. How do children make sense of all this? And how do they reconcile science and belief?

Becoming older and growing in understanding, the boys have talked recently with their dad about this. “It’s belief until it’s proved and then it’s science,” the boys told me.

“So what about angels,” I asked.

“They must be belief ’cos you can’t see them flying round, can you,” Isaac replied.

It is hard to know exactly what the boys do remember about Kate. We try to help by talking about her, whenever we can. Many people have told us how important it is to keep the person who has died in the conversation. A kind stranger, for example, wrote to us: “Both my parents died of cancer. I’m sorry for your loss. PLEASE tell stories about your Kate to your lovely grandsons. We stopped talking about our mother when she died – it was a black space that became hard to fill.”

Sometimes, I hold Kate up as an example for the boys to live up to. When they were complaining about having to keep going back over pieces of writing at school, to “improve” them, I told them that when their mum was writing a book, she had an editor who suggested changes to words and things to move around. I told them how hard she worked to make those changes. “And did she have a rubber?” asked Isaac, concerned.

We had a letter from a woman who lost her own mother as a child. She wrote: “My middle sister and myself had funny little memories of my mum and it truly wasn’t until I had my first child that I recall missing her.” Perhaps that will happen to Oscar and Isaac; I expect they will circle round the idea of Kate’s death and come to it at unexpected moments in unexpected ways. Maybe some later loss will take them back to how it felt in childhood. Or maybe, in a few years, the loss of a mother will simply give them a convenient hook on which to hang their inevitable non-specific teenage angst.

I hope they will be OK, long-term. But right now it is clear to me that they are not diminished by Kate’s absence, unlike us – my husband and I – who are. And if Kate could come back, just for a moment, I would tell her that she need not have been afraid. Oscar and Isaac are fine, just fine.

Complete Article HERE!


How to Help Your Kids Cope With the Loss of the Family Pet



Pets are part of the family, so it makes sense that losing one is tough on everyone, including our children. A pet’s death may be the first time they’ve ever experienced a real loss, and as a parent, it can be difficult to know how to start a conversation about life, death, and grieving in a way they can understand, but that won’t heighten their sadness.

Last week, we put our 12-year-old dog to sleep five weeks after he was diagnosed with lymphoma. It was a brief but rapidly debilitating illness, and I wondered if my kids would understand that a dog who was quite healthy only two months ago was now gone. Surprisingly, they took it much better than I did. My 3-year-old gave me a hug, then told me, “I don’t know why you’re crying, Mom. Gus was sick, and now he’s in heaven with grandma’s dog. He’s not sad he died. He’s still happy.”

After briefly wondering if my child was a pet psychic, I realized that his logic was pretty sound. While my son would miss our dog, he knew our pup had been suffering, and he was prepared for the death. He had processed the loss faster and more easily than I did precisely because he was a kid. If you’re dealing with the loss of a family pet, here’s how to help your children process their feelings.

  1. Make sure your child understands what death means. Gently make sure that your child understands that their pet’s death means the animal will never be physically present again. Don’t be alarmed if it takes awhile — even years depending on their age — for your child to understand that means that your pet can no longer breathe, feel, or ever be alive again. If the death was sudden or unexpected, explaining why or how your pet died might be important to help your child understand the permanence of the loss. Of course, consider your child’s age and ability to understand and only give them developmentally appropriate information.
  2. Be honest. Telling your child about the death openly and truthfully lets your child know that it’s not bad to talk about death or sad feelings, an important lesson as they will have to process many other losses throughout their lives.
  3. Follow your child’s lead. Sometimes children are better than adults at accepting loss, especially when they’ve known for some time that their pet had a limited life span or was ill. Don’t attempt to make your child’s grief mirror your own, but do validate any emotions that come up as your child goes through the mourning process, and be ready to talk when they have questions. Age-appropriate books like Sally Goes to Heaven and I’ll Always Love You can also help with communication.
  4. Don’t be surprised if your child grieves in doses. Children often spend a little time grieving, then return to playing or another distraction. This normal, necessary behavior prevents them from becoming overwhelmed and makes the early days of grief more bearable for them.
  5. Say a formal goodbye. Consider having a small memorial service where you can all say goodbye, discuss favorite memories, and thank your pet for being part of the family, even if the service is just in your backyard or around the kitchen table.
  6. Find a way to memorialize your pet appropriately. We often don’t realize how constant our pets were in our lives until they’re gone. By making a photo album, turning a collar into a Christmas ornament, or commissioning personalized art work through Etsy, your whole family will have a positive remembrance of your beloved pet for a lifetime.

Complete Article HERE!