Parenting a Child through the Illness and Death of a Loved One

I first blogged about this in 2007, but it seems appropriate to republish it now. I have added to it as well.

Probably one of the most difficult times to parent is during a time of grief. There is such a flurry of activity preparing for the funeral arrangements and greeting out of town friends and relatives. Or perhaps the death of a loved one is in a different town and it is your family with children that has to travel to the funeral. Either way it can be an unusually stressful time for parents and for the children.

If the death of a loved one is preceded by an extended illness children and parents can feel even more fatigued and stressed.

My family has had both scenarios. Our stillborn son was buried here at home and all of those arrangements were locally. Grandma’s funeral last week was also local. But we have also had to travel distances of four our more hours to attend the funeral of a grandma and an aunt, both times with children three and under. Here are some tips that worked for us.

1. Death is a part of life. In a Catholic family there are lots of opportunities to honor and talk about the saints that have gone before us, discussions about death, heaven, hell, illness etc. These discussions can occur regularly and naturally. It is not a sad thing to discuss with children, but more just a natural part of their development that one would discuss on their level. Discuss death just as you would money, sexuality, or vocations – naturally and bit by bit as they are ready for it.

On the same note, during mom’s extended illness my kids always accompanied my on visits to her nursing home or at the hospital. When she was very ill it was just the teens, but for the many many weeks prior to that even Rosie came to visit and even knew the way to Grandma’s room. And if the visit was too intense, or if grandma was too sick for little visitors they went to a family room in the facility to play quietly or watch t.v. until we were ready to leave. Izzy, Noah and Rosie made quite a few friends from the other residents that way!

By visiting Grandma regularly they saw her decline for themselves and when the end came they were more prepared for it.

2. Don’t hide your sadness from your children. They will know something is wrong anyway. Trying to hide it just makes it worse. What they can imagine is always worse than the reality. Model grief for them. Let them see how it is done.

3. Include children in the funeral home and funeral as much as possible. For my children, the time in the funeral home for both of their grandmothers’ calling hours was filled with fellowship and happiness. They reconnected with their cousins, there was plenty of good food and to them it was like a large family party. The only difference was grandma was in her casket. I let my children approach grandma when they were ready. The older ones would kneel and pray and the rejoin their cousins downstairs. The little ones would venture near and touch the wood. One little cousin came up and kissed grandma’s hand and then scooted away. I saw him later with a donut. The whole atmosphere was very natural.

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Rosie beside her Grandma’s casket during calling hours.

We had a similar party after the funeral and burial of our baby and the children still have very fond memories of Raphael’s party.

4. Include older children in the funeral if possible. At grandma’s funeral one cousin sang a solo, some were pall bearers, some ushers or readers. At baby Raphael’s funeral his two older brothers served the mass. Participating made them feel grown up and  they were really important to what was going on around them. For Grandma’s funeral this time two of her granddaughters did the readings, her two younger granddaughters brought up the gifts, and her six grandsons were pall bearers.

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5. Babies and toddlers at a funeral can be trouble, but I wouldn’t necessarily exclude them. (ADDENDUM: I would not take a baby or small child to a baby’s funeral. That would be insensitive. I’m speaking in general of an adult funeral.) Older relatives and friends will love to see them. But for the more solemn parts it might be best if they can be in another room with an adult or older child. At my sister-in-law’s funeral I took my baby and toddler out and I was so happy to have a private room where they could watch Veggie Tale videos and no one could hear them fuss.

6. After the funeral it might be nice to make a scrap book or other remembrance of the deceased. Let the children help to pick the pictures and decorate. Also during the month of November, the traditional month for remembering the dead, have the children help you make a special place in your home for remembering and honoring those that have passed on before.

November - Remembering our beloved dead

7. Make visiting the cemetery a fun occasion! We visit our baby’s grave regularly but on his birthday we always try to take out balloons and a cake to share. We also love to visit at Christmas time with all of the pretty decorations that others leave and Memorial where the cemetery looks like a rolling sea of red white and blue flags!

8. Visiting cemeteries can be educational too! In Ohio we have the tombs of two famous presidents, Garfield and McKinley and my older children have learned much about those time periods before and after our visits to those spots.

Copyright 2012 Elena LaVictoire

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