Last week, three of my grandchildren experienced the death of their “Nana.” Nana was the love of their lives and made every holiday special for them. She always had a trinket, a set of holiday ears or a story to share with them.
How do you explain death to children who are 9, 7 and 5? What questions might they ask? How do you not scare them into thinking they might die too? What does it mean to “go to heaven”? I am proud of my daughter and her husband concerning how they handled it. They all visited her several times in the hospital and shared what they were doing during the day at school and at home. The children helped make pictures to hang in her room when she was moved to hospice. Drawing helped them feel they were contributing to help Nana feel better. Two nights before she passed, the children gave her big hugs and kisses, and she was able to hug them and say good night. This is the remembrance of their Nana.
The morning after her death, their parents explained that Nana wasn’t in pain any longer; she was in a safe place, and she was watching down on them. There was little reaction at first – numbness at realizing what they were being told. One asked, “Where is she now?” “In heaven,” was the reply, a simple answer, as the children knew what heaven was. As the days progressed, there were other questions answered by giving information that was age appropriate and helped them process what they were feeling. Comments such as, “It is okay to be sad; everyone will miss Nana,” were common.
Children need to know that death is not scary. We all experience it at some point but never say the person has “gone to sleep.” They might become fearful and we don’t want children equating death with sleep. Help name and express their feelings by talking through them in loving ways. Children are like little barometers; they can read adult emotions. It’s okay to tell your child you are sad. Extra understanding, support, security and structure will help children through their anxiety and sadness. Make sure they know who will be caring for them and that help is there for them. Children who attend school can ask to talk to the school social worker. A call or note to the child’s teacher is always a good idea. The teacher can help the child seek out the help of the school social worker.
We helped prepare the children by reading “The Fall of Freddie the Leaf,” a children’s story about the life of a leaf by Leo Buscaglia. The story is also available on YouTube. Healing Heart Center in Danbury (203-702-7400) has support groups for children of all ages and their parents. They host a summer program for grieving children. We all experience death at some point in our lives. During Nana’s celebration of life, everyone talked about how she loved to dance, always had a smile on her face and loved her grandchildren. That is how we need to remember her. Rest in peace, Nana.
Anne E. Mead, M. Ed., is the administrator for the Early Childhood Education and Extended Learning Programs of the Danbury Public Schools. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact her at 203-830-6508 or firstname.lastname@example.org.