What year did your grandfather die?
The upcoming death of a family member
Early information for children
No matter what age, what disability or, in old age, what degree of dementia: Everyone has the right to honest, appropriate information! Almost everyone has already experienced the situation: “Is something?” We ask the mother, because it feels “somehow different”. “No, it's nothing,” is the answer, but it is not reassuring.
Children sense that when information is withheld, a family secret emerges. This worries them, scares them, makes them feel guilty and irritates them.
Conversations and - if desired - physical contact are important if you want to prepare children for an upcoming bereavement or death. This makes them feel that they are being taken seriously, and their perception is confirmed. This has a calming effect on children, even if the occasion is a sad one.
At what age do I start talking to children about death?
Nobody asks that age question when it comes to color. “When do I tell the child that there is the color YELLOW?” Although we know that some children cannot distinguish colors for a long time, we still say to the toddler: “Look there, the beautiful yellow car.” We let children grow into a world of colors and at some point the child can name this color himself. We can do the same when it comes to happy, sad or intellectual things.
This is true even for the youngest children. If I carry my baby in my arms and as a mother I am sad because my father has died, the baby will perceive my sadness and may react to it with crying. Already there (and even with the unborn baby in my stomach) I can talk to my child, I can cry. "I'm so sad because father, your grandpa, died today." The child will not cognitively understand the message, but it will feel: "Yes, something is different - but mom reacts to me."
I say to the child: “Hush, be nice. Why do you cry? Everything's fine ... “even the finest nuances of moods and signals hide behind a happy facial expression. The mother's heartbeat and breathing can also be felt and changed as a result of the withheld grief. The mother is out of tune with herself - and causes further concern.
And why now withholding information about a bereavement? So that the child is not sad! - But: when a grandpa dies, when mother's father dies, then that's sad and then you can be sad. I also laugh when I'm happy and don't hide my joy from the child. Mourn, laugh, be angry, love ... all this and much more is part of being human and we can help the children to grow into a world of colors, but also a world of emotions.
When is a good time to talk about a life-limiting illness, an impending death?
We have to internalize that we can only look at the good time of the conversation; the sad occasion of the conversation will not become any less sad even through the postponement of the date. It is important that you do not discuss things "door and hinge", that you have time to address questions, fears and sadness.
Eva's father asked me when the “right time” would be to tell Eva, 8 years old, about the impending death of her grandfather (according to medical information about half a year). The girl's parents had known about this for 4 weeks. I advised them to inform Eva as soon as possible. The following weekend, father and mother spoke to Eva. Eva's spontaneous reaction was: “Oh, that's why mom has been so weird lately. She also cried sometimes, didn't she? ”The girl was relieved after noticing an unpleasant change in the family, feeling it:“ Something is wrong here. ”
These are the little taboos in families: a problem is in the air, noticeable for everyone, but there are no direct reactions to it - except perhaps psychological upsets. Why do we take evasive answers, sometimes even lies, an uncomfortable mood? To protect the child from sadness, right? What do you think is worse: inexplicable dissatisfaction or shared grief?
Only after Eva's relief came questions and tears: “Why does grandpa have to die?” “When does grandpa have to die?” “Can't the doctor help? Or the good Lord? ”“ What happens to Grandma then? Should she then live all by herself? "She cried bitterly, only to think about it after a while:" Does grandpa know? "
Don't console yourself
It's okay to let children participate in the grief over an impending death. Do not comfort your child with false promises. Here, too, your child will feel that you are not sticking to the truth. Grief hurts, but the pain goes away when you are allowed to cry, complain, ask! If you don't have the answers to the child's questions, feel free to admit it. Sometimes you never find the right answer, sometimes you can look for it together with the child.
Your child is not to blame for illness or death
Always make it clear to the child that it is not to blame for the illness or possible death. Children often believe that things are caused by what you do (e.g. being naughty) or not (rarely visiting). No, nobody gets sick because a child gave their grandpa a cheeky answer. A grandma has never died because the grandchild has not visited her again. Mom doesn't get sick because the nursery was often messy. If, as in the example, Eve's grandpa has to die, it is because of the serious illness he has.
Another positive side of the information is that you still have the opportunity to compensate for alleged omissions. Together you and the child can think about: “What good can we grandpa do? Or grandma, who is now very sad too? "
Important conversation opportunities
Perhaps the child asks the grandpa if he is sad that he has to die. A conversation could arise that is comforting for everyone involved, because you can say something dear to each other again and cry together, talk about fears, but also about hope - such as a reunion in heaven. Many dying people know about their condition and may want to talk about it; usually they are patted on the shoulder: “Come on, we can do it. You're still going to be 100, wait a minute! "
Leon's uncle was dying. The whole family knew about it and they planned a sailing trip with him on his deathbed. Nobody felt comfortable in the situation. Did 13 year old Leon feel sorry for the adults? Did the adults feel sorry for the uncle? Did the uncle feel sorry for the relatives?
One could speak out, talk about inheritance, address the form of burial (do you know whether your relatives want to be anonymous or in a family crypt, cremated or buried in a coffin?), Go through a guest list for the farewell party, about pain therapy, hospices or life-support measures To gather information. But it is also possible to make it clear to the child: “Grandpa doesn't like to talk about that. If you have any questions, we can talk about them. ”Never say,“ You don't ask that kind of thing! ”Children have to ask in order to find their way around new situations.
There could be tears
In all considerations that you have when dealing with your child, but also when dealing with the child with the dying person, you should always ask yourself: “What am I afraid of? What situation, what reaction? If this fear arises, how can one specifically deal with it? ”You will see, when you deal with these questions, most fears will dissolve. The fact will remain sad, but sadness is also an appropriate, normal response to an impending loss.
In surveys in my seminars, there is always one single concern that turns out to be a major concern of both medical professionals and teachers, educators, customer advisors, parents, pastors or nurses: There could be tears! With the child, with the dying person and also with myself. Yes, and?
Other possible reactions
Because children differ in age, temperament and life situation, they also react differently to the news of an impending death. It can be that the child becomes angry, aggressive, that he does not show any emotion, that he talks a lot about it or is just silent. Maybe they sleep badly, react with separation anxiety, are afraid to visit their grandpa or don't want to leave him at all. But your child has the right to feel and express these feelings. Together they should always seek conversation, find ways to express sadness or love. Painting, writing, handicrafts, but also movement are good means of expression.
Mourners who “have their feelings under control”, “are strong” and show no tears, have to suffer more from the grief in the long term than people who allow their feelings and live them out appropriately. However, this also means setting limits for the child in grief reactions if they could injure themselves or others (verbally or physically). “I think I know why you are so angry. But even if you are sad, you still cannot beat the children in your class. ”Find possible solutions with your child.
Possibilities of accompaniment
When your child is aware of the upcoming bereavement, you have the opportunity to address the child's questions. You can get picture and non-fiction books (see recommendations at the bottom of the page). Even if it is still incomprehensible, you can grapple with the parting. What will change for the family with the onset of death? The place of residence, the finances? Do you think it is impossible if your child is already practicing a song on the flute, which it will later play to grandpa at the coffin at the funeral service? It may be unusual, but maybe there is also a grandfather who is already happy about this song while he is sick?
Visit to the undertaker - a practical report
I went to an undertaker with 2 children, 10 and 13 years old, 2 weeks before the mother's death. Both children wanted to get to know the business when they heard that I had to go there for a meeting. Despite my concern that the premises might frighten the children at this point, I agreed to the visit, which we could break off at any time. After an initial shyness, the children first asked about the prices of the coffins and urns on display. Then both thought about what would be an option for them. The 13-year-old opted for the most expensive, the girl for a light-colored coffin with the “precious” cross on it. I told the undertaker, who was prepared for the visit, that their mother was very sick and that we had talked about maybe painting the coffin for mom quite nicely. We were then shown the workshop where we could paint in good time. Finally, the children wanted to see the inside of a coffin. Together we unscrewed a coffin, lifted the lid together, inspected and felt the interior. Then the empty coffin was closed again.
We were fired with the words: "Take care. Maybe we'll see each other again then, I hope, but that will take a while. But when you come back you will already know where the workshop is here. ”Both children were very balanced on the way back in the car and also later at home. They told their father and other siblings about the visit without showing any fears. Getting to know the place, which sounded so creepy, was now connected with the likable person of the undertaker, with coffins, urns and beautiful rooms that one already knew. The horror was gone.
The mother's coffin was painted 3 weeks later. Mama's children had painted a very large heart on the inside lid, which was not lined with fabric. "So that mom can always see how much we love her." The outside of the coffin was painted with the names of the family, flowers and hearts. All symbols that expressed love for their mother.
These and other possibilities with the undertaker are also available in the case of sudden death. However, the chance of choosing a suitable undertaker, writing down the necessary material on a list or obtaining it before death is clearly greater.
Aftermath: Two weeks after the farewell party, I was sitting with both children at the undertaker, we looked at photos of the painting on the coffin. The children said that they would cry sometimes, they remembered some incidents with their mother, they asked about an employee of the undertaker - and suddenly the 13 year old leaned back, relaxed and said with all his heart: “When I'm dead , then I want to come here too! "
Saying goodbye to the open coffin
Every deceased person can be laid out. Everyone can be laid out at home for 36 hours after death - even if they have died in hospital. If you are not familiar with this situation, such a suggestion may even sound scary. I'm not talking about any corpses here, but about spouses, my own children or parents. Families and children must be clear: the dead papa is my papa too. Bringing the deceased father, mother or child home from the hospital or leaving them at home in peace can make the farewell more understandable, more conscious - and "beautiful" despite all the sadness. The younger a child or the more severe the disability - the more important it is to understand. To see, to feel: yes, that is dead.
Take your child by the hand, also accompany older children when you visit the dead person for the first time. Get help yourself if you also need assistance. Do not ask your child: “Do you want to see mom again?” How should children decide if they do not even know what “dead” is, what it looks like or what it smells like? If saying goodbye is important to you, explain to your child what they will find in the room: “Come on, we want to visit mom again. Mom lies in the room and looks like she's asleep. But she is not sleeping, she is dead. She no longer moves, she does not open her eyes, she also looks a little paler than usual. That is how it is when one is dead. ”The dead person does not smell either, he is not contagious, there is also no cadaveric poison. This can also be important information, but should only be given in response to questions. If the child does not want to enter the room, it is okay too. Perhaps it will come to that later, when it sees that you have nevertheless visited mother. Often it is also helpful to offer the children the opportunity to go in together, the child can go out at any time alone or with a caregiver.
Many undertakers also offer the option of laying out on their premises. Take advantage of this offer if the deceased cannot stay with you at home.
There are currently 11 children aged 6 to 12 in my child grief group. 9 children saw the deceased father or mother. They are fine, they talk about it in the group. It is a matter of course for everyone to have seen the deceased. A 12-year-old girl says that it was not nice to see her father, but she is still glad to have seen him. 2 children were no longer allowed to stay with their deceased parents. They still find it unjust and mean even after 1 to 3 years. They feel like something has been withheld from them. The 9 other children think so too.
Children are allowed to see the deceased and also talk about it, if they did not like it or did not do well - they will not be harmed. Only children who are unprepared by the greatly changed appearance of a dead person, who have not received an offer to talk or who have been forced to visit against their will, can sometimes react to this visit with fears for months or even decades.
Children who have been accompanied, families who have been mutually supportive, do not want to miss this last farewell. It was sad, but it was the last chance to say goodbye with some consciousness and at the same time to begin to understand death.
Farewell gifts and memorial days
Funeral ceremonies, funeral services, farewell ceremonies can be arranged personally.You can choose songs with your children, design a candle for the church service, formulate thanks or prayers and read them painted or spoken, bring tealights connected with a thought, a thank you to the coffin, the children can choose their favorite flowers by color or type, one Design the wreath bow yourself ... all things that you design with the children in love for the deceased, but which at the same time do you good in your own grief.
“It's a shame that grandma is dead. But it's good that we made such a beautiful candle for you! ”Yes, it's sad, but it is important, even if on a small scale, to remain able to act yourself. In all those moments in which we consciously deal with the fact of death, whether we are laughing, being serious, praying or crying - this is exactly where our grief processing begins.
Sönke, 6 years old, put antlers in the coffin for his grandfather, a hunter, with him.
Marius, 7 years old, drew a plan for his aunt how best to get to heaven.
Ruth, 7 years old, tied a friendship bracelet and tied it around the dead grandma's arm.
Johanna, 3 years old, gave her dad her stuffed rabbit with her.
Four children who did not visit “something” (a corpse?) From which children should be kept away - but wanted to give something special to a loved one, sometimes also to the dearest person.
Falk, 5 years old, said when his papa was dying: “It's actually upside down. Papa is young and has to die. Aunt Helga is old and still alive ... but really, really: Dad is sick, Aunt Helga is not. "
Paul, 7 years old, remarked in the child mourning group six months after his mother's death: “It's so stupid that mom is dead. But if she weren't dead, I wouldn't have met you guys. So a shame, something not a shame either. "
Nora, 8 years old, said when her mother died: “The worst that can happen to a child is when the mother dies. No one can replace motherly love. ”When I asked whether it would have been better for her if Dad had died, she ponders for a moment and then says:“ No, both should be there. But I think that whoever is dead is always the one missing the most. "
Simon, 10 years old, whose dad completely unexpectedly dies a few days later from cancer, says: “It's a shame that grandfather is dead. But that's also kind of salvation. That papa is dead is no salvation. That's just big shit! "
These children do not react inexperienced, not childish, they see some facts more clearly than adults and call them that too. The nice thing about these 4 children is that they have parents who allow their statements, sometimes also confirm, like the mom who says: "Yes Simon, sometimes I also think:" This is all shit. " her Simon on her lap and they are sad together and they comfort each other at the same time.
No child is wished for sad things on their way through life. Still, nobody can choose their story. There is joy, there is tears. There is sun, there is rain. There is life, there is death. In my work with the children, I have become certain: the children who experience suffering but are allowed to mourn and are accompanied, often emerge from this situation as strong people. For parents, protecting children in times of mourning should not mean protecting their children from sadness, but rather means accompanying and supporting them in finding their own emotional expressions.
Recommended children's books on the topic:
"Grandpa won't come back" Edition Fuchs und Hase, ISBN 9-905501-34-1
Grandpa has died, the parents tell Florian. Florian is not sure whether Grandpa also knows that he is now dead. That's why he's writing a letter to his grandfather.
"Grandmother" Neugebauer Verlag, ISBN 3-85195-275-8
Grandma Marie tells Tommy that she won't live long. A beautiful book that can comfort children.
"Erik and the grandpa ghost" Oetiger Verlag, ISBN 3-7891-6251-5
Erik's grandpa is dead and appears to him like a ghost every night. Erik and the grandpa ghost know that this cannot and should not be - and they also find the reason: Both could not say goodbye to each other. After doing that, both get their (night) rest. Nevertheless, the grandpa lives on in Erik's memory.
"Julia learns to say goodbye" read and play publisher ISBN 978-3-939456-04-9
Julia's grandma has died. Her parents explain it to her and go to see the deceased grandma. the laying out, the burial preparation, the burial and the time afterwards are shown. The child's grief reactions are named, the parents explain sensitively. Quite a good book for this area.
- Mechthild Schroeter-Rupieper is married and the mother of 3 sons and a foster daughter, educator, long-term freelance trainer and grief counselor. It focuses on strengthening and accompanying educators, carers and pastors from the social environment of children and young people and the mentally handicapped. In her practice Lavia Institute for Family Grief Support in Gelsenkirchen, she also accompanies people of all ages before and after an impending death.
- Author of the book “Forever Different. The house book for families in times of grief and parting. "
Further contributions by the author can be found here in our family handbook
45886 Gelsenkirchen, Germany
Tel: 0209 17 02 777
Fax: 0209 17 02 880
Created on July 26th, 2007, last changed on November 19th, 2013
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