Dealing with a family death

Question: Please help. My husband died and we will have a memorial Tues. A seven year old is angry with God for taking his grandpa. He is coming tomorrow and I want to be able to talk to him. Also, we will have an inurnment service – brief- but how do I lessen the shock of cremation for the 7 year old and an 8 year old. I have read three books and have searched the internet and you are the first one I could actually ask. My husband’s lungs and heart gave out and he died after 5 days in the hospital. I really need concrete answers rather than generalities. I realize one can’t be absolutely specific but I need help in what to say. We are Christian in belief. I want to answer the best I can for these two very bright children. K.H.

Answer: First, please accept my deepest sympathy for your loss. As you begin to try to explain death or console the children around you, pay attention to your own feelings. Your family is grieving together. Each person (young and old) will be working their way through fear, anger, worry, sadness, and confusion. You do not need to be removed from your loss in order to help the children. You will want to give the children a deep understanding of love and loss that is age appropriate to their young world.

Let the children know how much you loved their grandfather and how you will continue to cherish his memory. Talk and cry together. Children do not understand death as an abstraction. There is even a question if they can logically understand that death is not reversible – they have no experience with a person never coming back. Tell the children about your beliefs about “life” after death. This is a good time to talk to them about your faith. Do not be afraid to use the word “death”. The word “death” does not frighten children, it only makes adults uncomfortable. Talk about what it was like to say “good bye” to your husband. Children need to hear the personal stories – what was it like in the hospital? Was your husband conscious? What did you say to your husband in those last days? What is it like to share a life with someone, to share his death and to face a life without him? And when they’ve had enough and are ready to go play as if it were an ordinary day, smile to yourself with gratitude for their innocence.

Talk about the connections between your husband and the children. Children cannot just be observers of the mourning process. They need to participate in ways that make sense to them. Remind them of happy memories they had together. Tell them why they were special to your husband. Keep his influence alive in tangible ways: sharing things he would want them to have, sharing his life stories, and retelling his favorite jokes.

As for the 7-year-old who is angry with God, tell him you understand. Tell him you will miss your husband deeply. If you are feeling some anger yourself, tell him that too. Shake your fists at the clouds, stomp your feet together, or punch the pillows. You are not angry at God but angry that you cannot understand his ways. Talk about what makes him angry: “taking” his grandfather before he was ready to let go or knowing his grandfather won’t be there to see him growing up. Try to comfort him with words: his grandfather will be watching in a different way now. Comfort with new routines: give him his grandfather’s good luck hat or call him by the nickname his grandfather used. Comfort him in the days ahead by being together, with hugs and physical closeness.

As for the “shock of cremation”, use your religious beliefs to explain a person’s relationship to their body. Explain simply how you made this choice. At 7 and 8 years old, the children may actually be very interested in the cremation process. Allow their questions and their curiosity. Feel free to let them know when you are not in the mood to continue. For yourself and for the children, remember your husband as healthy and handsome. Your husband’s life and his death are hugely important to the grandchildren. Welcome them into your heart and into your grief.

Good Luck,
Karen Deerwester, Ed.S.

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