Explaining Death to Young Children

We lost our grandfather last week, he was 93 and lived a full, happy life. My children were lucky enough to know their great grandfather, both kids loved him dearly just as he did them.

The children visited him in hospital and we explained that he was very sick. When we knew the time was drawing near, I was wondering how they would take the news of his death. Ally was barely 2 when my grandmother passed away and a few months after that, we lost Matt’s father as well. She doesn’t remember much but she knows that they are both now in heaven.

Now at age 4, she is definitely more aware. I explained to her that Great grandpa might look different. and that he might have tubes and machines attached to him. Ally takes most medical things in her stride, having been in and out of hospital several times herself. She was more excited at seeing the extended family.

We brought both the kids to the wake and they each wanted to look into the coffin. Max’s reaction was simple, he looked at my grandfather and said ” he’s sleeping” Ally knew he had gone to heaven but I guess she was puzzled why his physical body was lying there. She asked how did he get into heaven, did he take an aeroplane? Finally she decided that he took a balloon to heaven. Throughout the five days, they seem oblivious to the whole thing as they played and chatted with friends and relatives who came to pay their last respects. Ally couldn’t understand why I didn’t allow her to wear her pink dress, I just told her this was not the time and place for it. I try to be as open and honest about death as I can with the children. I know it’s normally a taboo subject and most chinese families would say ” Choy ah!” the minute it is brought up. But I want the children to understand, that is the cycle of life. Sometimes people feel that they are protecting their kids by not talking about it, but children are very intuitive. They might sense that the subject of death brings about great sadness and thus decide not to share their feelings as well since they won’t want to upset anyone.  Instead of protecting them, we might cause them more worry.

The day of the funeral itself was slightly harder since everyone was emotional. The kids were concern that my mother was so upset. But I explained to Ally that she missed great grandfather cos he was no longer with us. Max kept asking what we were doing as we walked behind the hearse on my grandfather’s final journey. During the funeral Mass, the children had more questions but on the whole were very well behaved.  I chose not to let them into the cremation hall as I thought it would be too much for them to comprehend at this point in time.

I have no doubt that more questions about death and dying will come up in the next few days or even weeks. Ally always takes a while to express her inner thoughts and feelings and I hope I’ll be able to explain it to her in a simple and honest manner. I have to admit, in our own grief, it can be hard to answer question after question and sometimes the same question several times over but I have to keep reminding myself that she is trying to make sense of everything in her young mind as well.

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