When a Loved One Dies
About 30 percent of the patients at Presbyterian Hospice & Palliative Care in Charlotte today are younger than 60, and as a result, more and more young children are having to deal with grief. Ten years ago, 90 percent of our patients were between 70 and 80 years old. The change in demographics has a lot to do with people delaying health care due to economic conditions, and unfortunately, this often means diseases have advanced — especially in cancer patients. This shift in demographics means younger children and grandchildren are experiencing the death of a family member.
I deal with death on a daily basis, but last year, when I lost my dad and my daughter lost her grandpa, the mourning process came home. In our house, we have a guest room dedicated to my dad. His pictures and knick knacks hang on the walls, and he slept there when he came to visit.
After my dad died unexpectedly due to complications after a heart attack, my 7-year-old daughter asked to move into his guest room. She slept clutching photographs of her grandfather, her father and me. Surrounded by things that helped her feel safe and closer to him, we began our grieving journey.
This wasn’t the first time my daughter lost a grandparent, or I lost a parent. Just five years earlier, when my daughter was 2, my mother died from ovarian cancer. This time, however, our mother-daughter conversations and the grieving process for her were significantly different, because a 7-year-old can process thoughts and feelings on a much higher level than a toddler.
Feeling loss and grief alongside a child has taught me many lessons about healing. Wesley Sturgis, a colleague and bereavement counselor at Presbyterian Hospice & Palliative Care, recently put together a list of tips for parents who are faced with helping young minds understand death and young hearts grieve. In addition to seeking grief counseling, which can inform, assist and arm parents for the bereavement journey, we also encourage parents to:
• Slow down to allow healing. Busy parents feel responsible for many roles simultaneously (parent, professional, friend, church leader, etc.), but the best thing they can do is to slow down long enough to allow for crying, conversations and personal healing. It’s like during airline travel when, in the event of sudden loss of cabin pressure and the oxygen bag drops from the ceiling, parents should put their mask on first and then help the children around them. Likewise in grieving, parents need to begin personal healing in order to best aid the healing of their children.
• Expect grieving to be very individual. Children mourn differently than adults, and each child expresses grief in ways as unique as his or her personality. Set aside expectations of how the bereavement process “should” go, and embrace the process itself.
• Speak simply. Depending on the age of the child, the brain’s ability for abstract thinking may still be developing. That’s why it’s important to explain the situation as clearly and simplistically as possible, then ask questions to verify comprehension. For example, a 3-year-old doesn’t grasp the concepts of time or distance, and may think heaven is like the beach: a distant place people visit and return home from. Be sure to explain death as a permanent state. Also, even though we hear it in poetry, never associate death with sleep. Doing so can instill fears of sleeping. Instead, clarify death as a process when the body stops all functions.
• Take the child’s lead. A lot of new topics and situations come with death: cremation, wakes, open caskets, cemeteries, funerals and more. Initiate conversations about each topic, explaining events as simply as possible; then give children choices about their level of involvement. Support children in their decisions, and never force participation. Attending a viewing can be traumatic for children.
• Be real, but confident. Parents begin building relationships of trust with their children from birth; therefore, parents serve as the most capable and loving support system a child has. Don’t try to hold back your own feelings of sadness or cover up your crying — children should learn not to be afraid to show their true feelings. Extend love and provide a safe place for the entire family to express feelings, and set aside worries about making mistakes or not knowing all the answers.
Kim Darden is the Director of Presbyterian Hospice & Palliative Care, which offers free grief counseling for adults who have lost a loved one through death. Counseling includes a family focus, with guidance for parents to help their children grieve. For information, call 704-384-6478.