Make us your home page

Shielding children from death only postpones hard lessons

Shielding children from death only postpones hard lessons

Q: My husband and I had a discussion on mourning practices, in particular my mourning my sister, who has been dead for 12 years. He said that when we have children, he wouldn't want me taking them to her gravesite because he does not believe children should be exposed to mourning or a depressing situation. I think it's important for children to understand death at an early age. And I think it's okay for them to accompany me to the cemetery.

How do we come to a compromise on something I think is so important? My husband says it's hard to discuss it with me since the topic is so close to my heart. The conversation came up because the anniversary of her death falls on a holiday, which makes the usually joyous holiday a very depressing time for me.

Disagreements on Mourning

A: Small children are soft, their clothes and toys are soft, their food is soft, our voices around them are soft — I get the impulse to keep their worlds completely soft.

But since every living thing is going to die, death — of a grandparent, pet, neighbor, even parent or sibling — eventually crashes the padded party, and your husband doesn't get to say when.

Sometimes well-meaning adults try to keep the padding in place anyway, only to make things harder for the child. "Grandpa is sleeping," that classic dodge, can leave a kid terrified of going to bed and never waking up. Going vague — "He went away," "He's with God/the angels" — can set active imaginations running without a map. Anchor faith with facts. Information can scare children, sure, but so can the absence of it.

And as soon as kids can form them, they'll start asking questions: why, how, where, will it happen to me/to you/to Fluffy/to my toys?

Answering children's questions with simple truths allows them to learn big concepts in small bits, which they can process at their own pace: "All living things stop working after a while," "It's sad, but it's also part of nature," "Most people live a very long time." (Lifetimes, by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen, is a good primer for parent and child.)

The questions themselves — which reflect where kids are developmentally — set that pace.

Factual answers to a child's questions, meanwhile, sow trust, as kids learn to connect honest questions with honest (if judiciously abridged) answers. There's no "You told me X and now I see it's Y" ambush lurking ahead.

Your husband says you're too emotional, but, if anything, he's the spokesman for emotion (fear), and you're advocating for facts.

Since you and he differ over theories, try working toward compromise with a practical exercise in applying your beliefs:

Someday, your child will hear your sister's name and ask who that is. What will you/he say?

Someday, your child will see you cry about your sister and ask why you're crying. What will you/he say?

Someday, your child will want to go with Mom to the cemetery — what will you/he say?

When children see a parent cry at a gravesite, they don't just witness grief. They also witness a parent managing grief, by remembering someone, expressing emotion, going home and carrying on with life. I doubt your husband means to protect them from profound lessons like that.

Shielding children from death only postpones hard lessons 10/29/09 [Last modified: Thursday, October 29, 2009 4:30am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

Copyright: For copyright information, please check with the distributor of this item, Washington Post.

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours