Explaining the Death of a Parent to a Child
Posted on 02 September 2019, 7:56
When my friend Dave was asked by his nine-year-old granddaughter what happens to us when we die, he struggled and stumbled in his response, realizing that it required an answer that went beyond the trite, “we go to heaven and live with the angels.” Fortunately, Dave’s daughter came to his rescue and explained that people have many beliefs about the afterlife, leaving the door open for her to learn about them and explore her own understanding of what happens when we die, at which point Dave told his granddaughter that he would be happy to talk to her about the subject anytime.
My discussion with Dave was prompted by a movie in which a young girl, about five, lost her mother to an auto accident and was told by her grandmother that “she will live on in your heart.” I had heard that hackneyed expression more than a few times before and wondered how a child is to interpret it. It does not necessarily imply that the parent had survived death in a larger life and was still with her, and it might well be interpreted to mean that the parent was now totally extinct and nothing more than a fading memory.
I can still remember the anxieties and fears I experienced 76 years ago when my step-grandfather died. My parents didn’t know what to tell me, and I, just six at the time, didn’t know what questions to ask. It was all hush-hush. The trepidation multiplied 100-fold when we visited the crematorium and I struggled with grasping that what was left of my grandfather was now contained in a little metal box, one surrounded by hundreds of other little metal boxes with “people” in them.
Is there a comforting response concerning death for a child? After discussing it with Dave, I decided to put the concern to other friends and to limit it to children under seven (the generally accepted age of reason), leaving the older children for another discussion. I hypothesized a situation in which my friend could go back in time with his or her present experience and knowledge and attempt to explain to a five-year-old daughter and three-year-old son the death of the other parent in a traffic accident.
I began with my most skeptical friend, Dale, who rejects all the psychical research suggesting survival that is often discussed at this blog, as “unscientific.” “Kids, I’ve got some really terrible news,” Dale thought out his reply. “Your mommy was killed in a traffic accident. I don’t understand how or why it happened but it did. Come here and let’s hug. (We would all break down and cry). I’d answer that Mommy wouldn’t want us to see her and how she was hurt as it would only make us more sad. We will cremate her body as those were her wishes. Nobody really knows what happens when you die; maybe she’ll go to heaven and we’ll see her again some day. Meanwhile, remember all the nice things she did.”
Dale said that such reflects his belief and he doesn’t see it as giving the children false hope, like telling them there is a Santa Claus. Moreover, he would want them to think about all the good things their mother did and not dwell too much on the loss, at the same time realizing that thoughts of their mother would come back to them from time to time, when they’d just have to be strong and be grateful for the time they had with her.
Dale’s approach seems in line with that of mainstream psychology, as I was able to gather from the Internet. It avoids any discussion of consciousness surviving death. “Kids this young often have a hard time understanding that all people and living things eventually die, and that it’s final and they won’t come back,” we read at KidsHealth.org. “So even after you’ve explained this, kids may continue to ask where the loved one is or when the person is returning. As frustrating as this can be, continue to calmly reiterate that the person has died and can’t come back.” More bluntly, as I interpret it, tell the child that the loved is extinct and to get on with life.
Keith remembers that when he was about four-years-old his great-grandfather died and he was told that it is like “falling asleep.” He feels that this euphemism is still effective with the younger children. “You know your mom was in her car, don’t you?” he provides his possible explanation. “On the way a lorry did not stop at the traffic lights, and it hit your mom’s car and she was knocked out. That is like falling asleep when you get a bang on the head. By the time she arrived in hospital she had gone to sleep forever. We all do that sooner or later. So now she is at the hospital and won’t be coming home again, so you won’t have the chance to see her until you also fall asleep forever, when you are very old.”
When the children are a little older, Keith, who does not subscribe to any accepted religion nor accept the standard Christian version of heaven and hell, would use the word “died” instead of falling asleep and would explain that death is not the end of us, and that Mom is quite possibly living with her family on the other side and waiting patiently for her children to join her.
Glenda recalls the time she was working as a hospice social worker and made a call to a home where a young father fatally shot himself. The man’s three-or four-year-old son kept asking what was wrong and was told by the police and others that everything was fine and not to worry. “I thought it was doing a disservice to the child to lie to him and make him distrust his own observations and fears,” she says, adding that her advice in that case was not accepted and she was not allowed to follow up on it.
“They also need assurance that they will always be cared for and safe,” Glenda continues. She does not agree with Keith in suggesting that death is like falling asleep, as it might cause the child to fear wanting to go to sleep.
“My answer is pretty simple,” Mike replies. “If they haven’t reached the age of reason, and assuming they still have the other parent, I would say to them, ‘God called Mommy home to help Him in Heaven. She still loves you and thinks of you and watches over you from Heaven; and you can talk to her every night before you go to bed when you say your prayers. And she will hear you. And you’ll will see her again when you someday go back to Heaven. In the meantime, I will take care of you Talk to me any time you want. I always have time to listen to you, and help you. And I love you very much.’”
Like Mike, Norm does not accept the humdrum heaven of orthodox religions, but he believes in keeping it simple for children of that age and expanding on it when they become a little older. “[I would] explain that an accident is like falling down and scraping your knee, but sometimes more serious because the person will not get better,” Norm states. “God wants her to live with him to make her feel better until all of us can be together again and happy forever. Meanwhile, she sees you and knows what is happening to you, and she will be at all your birthday parties.”
When the children do indicate that they can comprehend a somewhat more complex idea, Norm would expose them to the evidence for survival as developed over the past 170 years by psychical researchers. “In other words, I would guide them along the way as far as they might want to go, not indoctrinate them. If they chose a traditional religious faith after all that, I would not attempt to proselytize them. However, I would be happy to discuss the ridged dogmas of both organized religion and materialistic science.”
Getting back to Dave, he would tell the children that their mother has gone to a very special place where she is living with God, who is taking care of her. “In her new home, she lives in a Spirit body that we can’t see, but she can see us, and she will be living with us and watching over us to give us all her love,” he explains it. “It’ll be sad for us because we can’t see her anymore, but anytime you want to talk to her you can and she will hear every word you say and she will try to find a way to answer you. When we die, we will all go see and live with God and Mommy forever.”
Like Norm, Dave would later introduce them to the evidence “that explains and reinforces this belief, educating them on the context of the world’s major religions, including reductionism and the role of science in explaining our unknowns.”
Lewis would tell the children that their mother “had gone to a better world, a happier world, the place we’ll all go to when we leave this one. I’ll tell them she did not want to leave early and that she had no control over what happened, and that she’ll miss them and think about them for as long as they are alive. And they should talk to her, for she will pay them visits from time to time even though they probably won’t be able to see her. She will always love them and help them in every way she can.” Lewis adds that he would be in steady contact with his deceased wife, “sending her my love and assuring her that we love her and wish her every happiness where she is.”
Richard would explain to the children that their mother was killed in a terrible auto accident. “She can no longer be with us,” he would continue, “but she would want us to be very strong and help each other understand. She is actually in a ‘wonderful place’ called heaven and her “spirit’ is watching over us every day. She loves and misses us very much.” To support his statement, Richard would familiarize them with the stories of Colton Burpo (“Heaven is for Real”) and Akiane Kramirik’s “Portrait of Jesus.” I would add Karen Herrick’s “Grandma, What is a Soul,” to the list of books that might help children understand death.
All of my friends had more to say on the subject, including how they would explain it to the children at an older age, but space does not permit more here. Readers are invited to share their thought on the subject in the comments section below.
Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife, and Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I.
Next blog post: September 16