Sunday, June 22, 2014



Some time ago I had to make an emergency trip home to New Zealand because my brother passed away unexpectedly. He was a father of three and grandfather of two. His daughter and her family, who were living with them at that time, had gone to Europe on vacation for 6 weeks and they, like me, had to make an emergency trip home. The grandchildren were four and two-years-old.  They flew in from Singapore and drove immediately to Grandpa’s home. As it happened, Grandpa was lying in an open casket at the house which is a common custom in New Zealand.


I wondered how the parents would break it to them. I thought the children would freak out when they saw Grandpa lying 'asleep' there in that big box in the middle of the living area. I spoke to a family member and suggested that until they were able to understand what had happened to Grandpa, that perhaps the casket could be covered with a light cloth. I also thought they would become fearful when they saw their Mommy and Daddy so obviously distraught. Was I wrong on both counts!

They looked at Grandpa and were not the least bit afraid. Grandpa looked as though he was sleeping. Their mom was able to tell them that Grandpa was with Jesus in Heaven and that they wouldn’t see him at home any more. They accepted it. They attended the funeral so they could see what happened to Grandpa. I am sure there were many conversations that followed, but I was totally impressed by the way the parents handled the situation in the midst of their own grief.


We don’t realize that even little children understand more about death than we give them credit for. We talk to them about how and why birds, animals and insects die and where they go. They hear about death in fairy tales and see it on TV programs. They are not always emotionally attached or get the concept that they will never see that person or little creature again. It is not until they have formed a real bond with a now-departed person, that they grasp and feel a sense of loss. These little grandchildren had no idea really that they would never see Grandpa again.


The following depends on the age and curiosity of the child.

1) Talk to your kids about the circle of life.
     Take the opportunity with an insect, bird or animal to explain that we will
     not live for ever, that we are born, hopefully have a great life and that when we are
     old or our body wears out we die. We can use stories on the news or actual instances
     of sick young people we know, to explain that people can die at any time because of
     illness or accident. Tell them that when a person dies they are buried in a big box
     in the ground and they stay there. Tell them that friends and relations go and visit
     them and put flowers and other things on their grave because they want to remember
     the person. You can even point out a cemetery as you pass it so they have a picture in
     their mind and can see where dead people go.

2) Explain the emotion of death.
    We find it so hard to talk about the death of loved ones because we are afraid to let our
     own feelings show, and we think this is not a good thing for our kids to see. When
     we don’t communicate our sorrow and explain to kids what is happening they can
     become anxious, because their parent is obviously distressed. Tell them that it is OK
     to cry and that adults cry because they are sad that they will not see their loved one for
     a long time.

3) Be specific.
     When a family member such as a grandparent becomes ill to the point that they are
     very likely to die, if you think it would be appropriate, say to your kids, "One day
     soon Grandpa will go to sleep and not wake up."  Be prepared for the questions, "Where
     has Grandpa gone?"  If you are a person of faith you can talk about the destination of the
     person's spirit.  Their next question might well be, "Are you going to die?" They do
     need assurance on that score.

4) If you don't know all the answers to kids' questions, get help.
    Do some research. Accept that we don’t always have all the answers. Take your
    kids to the library, ask the school counselor to speak to them about death and grief, or go to
    the Internet for resources e.g.


Teach your kids to value life by showing them how to take care of themselves, to be protective
of others and gentle and kind with animals, insects and plants e.g. Teach them that it is cruel to
capture an insect in a bottle and just let it die there purely because they want to observe it
and then forget about the creature.

If you or your child has been through a sad loss and are not progressing through the
grief process, then professional help is readily available.

Written by Sally Burgess

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