Wednesday, October 10, 2012

When a Loved One Dies

We never expected that my Father-in-Law would be diagnosed with cancer, just months after retiring. A fun, robust, athletic man, he was the light of our childrens’ lives. When he told my husband and I of his diagnosis, it was his wish that we would not tell the kids, lest they be sad and worry for him. But after rounds and rounds of chemotherapy, the children had to be told why Grandpa was not visiting as regularly as before.

Two-and-a-half years passed, and both chemotherapy and radiation therapy failed to work for my Father-in-Law.  A social worker called about moving him into a Palliative Care unit.  Countless doctors and operations were able to slow the cancer, but not the outcome.  We took the kids to visit their Grandpa, and what we saw surprised us all: he had become a skeleton of a man.

The family held onto hope that Grandpa would somehow take a turn for the better.  But we received a phone call from the Palliative Care unit to hurry over, as my Father-in-Law was about to die.  He passed away within minutes of the call.  When we shook off the personal grief for a moment, the horror set in that the children no longer had their special Grandpa.  He was gone and now we would have to tell them the sad, sad news.

Tell the Truth When a loved one dies, tell your child the truth—or as close to the truth as possible.  For example, Grandpa died of cancer.  If your child is very young, try to explain it in simple terms.  This step helps your child learn his or her medical history, which may one day be forgotten, or lost when keepers of this information also pass away.

Share Your Feelings – Don’t be afraid to share your feelings with your child when a family member passes away.  It is important that your child share his or her feelings too.  Don’t try to hide tears in front of your child, instead use the opportunity to discuss your sadness for a loved one’s passing.    

Make an “I Love You” List Reassure your child that you love him, and make a list of family members and close friends that love them too.  When a loved one dies, your child’s world may seem smaller and less hospitable.  The “I Love You” list will be a reminder that your child is not alone.  Be sure to tell your child that you will always be there for him and that you will not be going away.

Keep the Memory Alive – Have your child remember a departed loved one by drawing a picture, writing a letter, or doing something special in memoriam.  If your child is very young, give her a laminated photo to keep of the special person (this makes it more durable).  Encourage your child to share memories of the loved one, and offer memories of your own.  If you can offer fond memories of a special time that your child spent with the loved one, it is sure to bring some warmth.  

Believe in Heaven? – “Mommy, where do you go when you die?”  If your culture embraces a concept like Heaven, this is sure to ease some of your child’s worries.  However, if you do not subscribe to such a belief system, do help your child find a peaceful answer to this question.

Visit the Final Resting Spot – Not all cultures allow children to attend the funeral, so do allow your child to visit a loved one’s final resting spot if the desire is there.  Depending on your culture, your child can be an active participant by putting a flower or stone on the final resting spot (ie; headstone), or by speaking a word or two.

This article was written by me, Jenna Em, and appears on the Wednesday October 10th, 2012 edition of the Kuklamoo blog

15 comments:

  1. Thank you for this amazing post. I know that one day we'll have to go through a similar process with my gramma, my kids great-gramma, passes away. We have been fortunate enough that she is not sick and has lived an amazing life (she'll be 95 in January)

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    1. Wendy, you are so fortunate to have had your Grandma around all this time. I was lucky enough to know 3 of my great-grandparents, and I enjoyed the relationship very much. I have so many found memories of my great-grandmother who was a great baker, very athletic and a bit of a comedian.

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  2. Great post and I agree, be truthful as much as possible with your kids. We have been truthful about death of loved ones with our kids and my son understands (as much as a 5 year old could) what that means. Chinese culture has some different beliefs when it comes to loved ones passing, and young children are not "supposed" to be at the funeral or even visit the cemetary (although we do still take our kids to visit Chinese Grandpa). We also burn incense to remember him, at home and at the cemetary, as well as burn special paper items and special "money" at the burial & cemetary from time to time for him to take over to the other side as his possessions. Although I'm not Chinese, I really love how my husband's family embraces this, it provides a lot of comfort to all of us and the kids to think we can still connect with loved ones :)

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    1. Brandi, that's a beautiful way you keep Grandpa's memory alive! In our culture kids are not supposed to come to the cemetery either, but we did bring ours because we knew that no one was closer to my Father-in-Law then they. Since his death, we visit his grave a few times per year and the kids put colored stones on his headstone.

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  3. I am so sorry for your family's loss. It is very difficult to help children understand...my father died when I was a teenager, my kids never knew him. It's just been a part of life that he was dead...and now when others die my son gets that they are going to go be with poppa rick now.
    We visit his grave a few times a year - and being honest about it was the best thing we could have done. People don't give kids enough credit

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    1. Ashley, I'm also sorry for your loss. Your dad died really young. I regret that my youngest child was just an infant when my Father-in-Law died, and will never know his wonderful Grandpa.

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  4. Great tips on how to deal with the loss of a loved one. I lost my mom when I was 20 to alcoholism in 2001. She was only 41. She never got to be there for my wedding or meet her grandchildren. I have discussed her passing with my oldest son (not the reason she died but that she has passed away and is in Heaven). It is such a difficult topic to discuss with children but I am sure they appreciate parents being open and honest with them.

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    1. Insane Mamacita, I am so sorry for your tragic loss. Your mom was so young when she died, and she missed out on so much of your life. Alcoholism can go much deeper than most people imagine.

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  5. beautiful post and I find it easier to be truthful to my children even with my youngest on knowing she was not only adopted but is a twinless twin.

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    1. Annie, how bittersweet about your daughter (twinless twin). I am sorry to say I know of too many twinless twins and it breaks my heart.

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  6. Death is pretty scary to children, and even some adults. I think it is important for everyone to grieve and express their feelings. Great tips in this post.

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  7. We all die yet dealing with death doesn't seem to get any easier. Since losing my son, I've had a really hard time with it.

    On a cheerily note (smile), you've received you the "Liebster Award"! Check it out, http://www.journeysofthezoo.com/2012/10/winners-liebster-award.html

    Great to have you as part of the team.

    Besos, Sarah
    Zookeeper at Journeys of The Zoo

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    1. Sarah, I'm SO sorry for the loss of your son. I was reading a recent post about it on your blog.

      On a different note, thanks for the Liebster Award!

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  8. Thank you thank you thank you for this post. I so wish I came across this earlier, but I agree with all your points. My dad was diagnosed with liver cancer dec 2013 and was given 3-6 months. He survived for 5.5 weeks after the diagnosis. We were optimistic and hoped for 6months. We initially told the kids that gong gong (grandpa in chinese) that he's very sick. He was able to come home for 2 weeks and the kids enjoyed every single moment of it with him. His last 5 days were spent in a palliative care unit and the kids visited him every day. My mom, brothers, my husband and myself were able to spend the last few hours of his wonderful and amazing life by his bedside. The kids weren't there, but my husband played videos of the kids for him before he left us. He was there when I took my first breath and I was honoured to be there when he took his last.
    We were honest with our kids about my dad's death. We told them he was very sick and the doctors couldn't fix it this time. He told them that his body stopped working and that he died. My oldest was 4.5 at the time and he seemed to have understood it and was very matter of fact about his gong gong's death. My youngest didn't quite grasp it right away and often ask where he is. We opted for them to not to attend the service, but was at the wake so they could hear all the wonderful stories of their amazing gong gong.

    I was the apple of my daddy's eyes and it has been hard, even 5 months later, to accept his death. I visit his resting place weekly and I take the kids with me. When I am sad, my oldest seem to always know why and he often told me that it's okay if I want to go to the cemetery.

    After reading your post, I feel so much better know that we probably went with the right approach on how we told the kids about death. Thank you.

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