Be not afraid: When a loved one dies

On the day of my mother-in-law’s death, my husband, Bill, his father, and I were together in her nursing home room along with the hospice nurse. Bill’s mom was struggling to breathe.

 “Get the children, if you think that’s important,” the nurse said.

 I drove the 20 minutes back to our house where my parents were watching the kids. I rehearsed what I would say. Their grandmother had had Alzheimer’s disease for the past eight years; we had already talked about how Alzheimer’s is not a disease from which people recover. But the day of death, no matter how much we know it is coming, is always somehow unexpected.

I pulled into the driveway and found that the kids were playing outside. They looked at me warily. I gathered them to me. “I just came from the nursing home,” I said. “Grandma is going to die soon. We are going to go and say goodbye and tell her we love her.”

The kids responded in keeping with their personalities. The little girls started wailing. Liam, who has a bit of a temper, kicked a wall, crying about the unfairness of it all. Quiet Jacob remained stoic, blinking fast and working not to add to the mayhem.

They cried intermittently and asked questions constantly all the way back to the nursing home. We rehearsed what would happen, how Grandma did not look like herself, that her eyes were closed, that they should not worry about whether she could understand them, but rather they should say what they felt for her. I said that all the loud crying was fine for home and the car, but once we got to the nursing home, we needed to replace it with soft crying for the sake of Grandpa Harry.

By the time we arrived, though, Grandma had died. Bill and I brought the kids in anyway. They each went up to her, touching her, saying their piece, moving back to allow another to take a turn. I was in awe of their comfort and bravery in the midst of death; I was amazed at how they understood the importance of composure and changed the tenor of their grief to respect their grandfather. As strange as it may seem, I was proud of my children in this moment of death.

Of everything we must teach our children, responding to death may well be the most difficult. We often have little or no time to prepare, our own grief may prevent us from comforting our children, and death inevitably brings on questions about heaven, hell, and faith that we may have been skirting for some time. November, with its opening feasts of All Saints and All Souls (November 1 and 2), provides us with a structure and a time to talk about death.

Don’t avoid discussion of death: A study showed that 80 percent of children have thoughts or worries about death—many centered on the death of their parents. Talking about the death of a person they are not close to will help prepare them for their own experience some day. Similarly, writing a line in a sympathy card for a friend helps build empathy for loss and helps dismiss some of the mystery of death.

They may think it’s their fault: A child’s “it’s all about me” attitude can show up in a different way when a loved one dies: The child may think he or she is to blame. A child’s misbehavior just before the death can lead him or her to believe the death is a punishment. As obvious as it may be that the cause of death is cancer or a car accident, parents must state this explicitly, following up by asking the child if he or she has questions.

Weaving in faith: Our Catholic faith teaches us that in death, we are united with God forever. This piece of our faith can be a wonderfully comforting end of the story for children, but parents must not substitute it for the beginning and middle. Children need the biological explanation of death and the opportunity to miss and grieve the person they’ve lost. The gift of faith can wrap around these two other pieces, but it should not eclipse them.

—by Annemarie Scobey  from the pages of At Home with Our Faith, Claretian Publications’ print newsletter for parents on nurturing spirituality in the home. Winner of the 2010 and 2011 General Excellence award from the Catholic Press Association. Here’s a sample issue.

We offer very low rates for parish use, as well as our free Moms’ Night Out monthly discussion guides.

And don’t miss our popular single-page parish handouts on handing on the faith, helping kids understand the Mass, Lent, and Advent.

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