Phyllis R. Silverman has received many awards for her work and is recognized internationally as a leader in the field of bereavement. Madelyn Kelly is a writer and former television news producer, and the mother of two sons. Her husband, the writer/columnist/editor Michael Kelly, was the first American journalist to be killed in the Iraq war, in 2003. Together, Silverman and Kelly wrote, A Parent’s Guide to Raising Grieving Children: Rebuilding Your Family after the Death of a Loved One which offers wise guidance on virtually every aspect of childhood loss. Below the authors answer some frequently asked questions but be sure to check out the book to see more detailed explanations. This is, after all, a tough topic and in a way FAQ’s don’t do it justice.
Q:Will my child be OK?
A: This is the most common question parents ask after a death disrupts their family. The answer is yes, but…
YES, your children will grow and flourish and move forward: they’ll have fun and friends and adventure, and they’ll experience joy and pain, like everyone else. Most children do not suffer serious emotional problems after the death of a parent or sibling. BUT their lives will be different. Not different/bad or different/good, just different than they might have otherwise been. Their role in the birth order may have been altered, their family financial situation may have changed, and certainly the rhythms of their lives have been disrupted. They will forever miss the person who died. It will take a long time for them– and you– to adapt to the new situation, but your family can definitely find its way through to “OK.”
Q: When do I tell my children that someone they love is going to die?
A: As much as you want to protect them from the sad knowledge, it’s usually a good idea to give your children some idea of what’s going on when a family member becomes seriously ill. You don’t have to jump immediately to the ultimate prognosis, but you might want to start with explaining the illness itself, and what might happen as the condition progresses. You will probably discover that your children have some inkling that something is up, and it may relieve some of their anxiety to put a name to their fears. Many children need some reassurance that, while this is a terribly sad situation, their world will not come to an end. Obviously, the amount you tell them, and the discussion itself, will depend in large part on your children’s ages; younger children may not even know what death is, or that doctors can’t “fix” everything, whereas older children might jump immediately to the question “will he/she die?” upon hearing a diagnosis. Many children like to hear just a little bit at a time, so be prepared for your big discussion to actually end before you feel like your children really “got it” or before you’ve said everything you wanted to. No two discussions will be the same, but if you allow your children the freedom to ask questions when they’re ready to, you open the door to an important ongoing conversation.
Q: Should I let my children come to/participate in the funeral?
A: Yes. Most families have found that including children in the funeral is an important first step in rebuilding your family after the death of a loved one, whether that death was expected or sudden. Children need this reference point, a sort of demarcation between their old world and their new. It doesn’t matter how they participate– some children may prefer to just come to the service for a few minutes and then go outside with friends or family members, while others may want to be actively involved in preparations or the service itself. Even very young children benefit from being present, and will want to hear stories about what the funeral was like, and what they did there, as they get older. Do whatever works best for you and your family; what’s important is recognizing your children as mourners, and treating them accordingly.
Q: My children don’t want to talk about the death. How can I make them?
A: It’s hard for anyone, kids or grownups, to talk about Big Subjects, and particularly hard in a situation like this, where these are alien thoughts– what am I without this person I loved; what is my world without them; what will become of me? Most children will not want to sit and talk about these things, especially not in response to a “what’s wrong?” or a “do you want to talk about it?” You can facilitate conversation by helping your children keep a connection to the person who died, by remaining open to their feelings and needs, and by reassuring them that despite your own great sadness, you are there for them, and you won’t be going away.
Q: People keep telling me it’s time to “move on” and get on with my life. Is something wrong with me for not being ready?
A: We can’t keep count of all the grieving adults and children who have complained about this kind of misguided (though usually well-meaning) advice. The reality is that anyone who thinks you should be “ready” to move on at a certain time, on a certain schedule, has never been in your shoes and really has no idea what you’re going through. In our book, we talk about some ways to respond to those comments, but we also stress that there is no right way to grieve; no clean and clear stages that you passively move through and then put behind you. When a spouse dies, you lose a life partner and a parent to your children, and at the same time you lose both the future you anticipated and a connection to your shared past. When a child dies, you lose a piece of yourself and of your family that can’t be replaced. You don’t “get over” the loss of a loved one. You learn to live without the person who died, and even to rebuild a life for yourself and your family, but it happens on your schedule. As certain as your friends (and all those movies and TV dramas) might make it seem, they cannot really know when “it’s time.”