Wednesday, December 22, 1999

Helping a Child Face Death

Helping A Child
Face Death

            Five percent of U.S. children will lose a parent before they reach the age of fifteen. Many more lose grandparents, friends or pets. What can we do to help?  As parents, teachers in schools and Sunday Schools, friends and family we sometimes have the challenge and opportunity to assist a grieving child.

            Here are just a few quick and brief thoughts.  A conversation with the pastor or a counselor may also be helpful as a source for more information. 

Be There...
            We often want to “fix” things with our words, but words will not make some things better.  They often make them worse!  So it is more important to “be there” for the child, than to try to give a child a dissertation on the process of healthy grieving.
Talking about death...
            What should be said?  Take the cue from the child.  A child will let you know what he or she is ready to hear by asking questions.  When the child asks questions like “how did Daddy die?” or “did Grandmother hurt badly when she died,” then the child is probably ready to know the answer.  Simple, honest answers are often best. 
It is usually best to give the child only the information that is asked for and no more.  If the child is ready for more information, the child will ask. 
            If the child is not asking, don't force the child to open up.  A gentle prompt, however, may be helpful -- “do you have any questions you’d like to ask?”
            A lot of people, including adults, “talk out their grief.”  We often find this in adults who tell and retell the same story about a spouse’s death.  Such telling of stories is helpful.  Children will do the same thing, telling others how a parent or grandparent died.  Letting the child talk it out, often helps avoid problems with “acting it out” through tantrums and misbehavior.
            Feel free to ask children to tell you about fun things they remember doing with the deceased.

How to describe death...
            Don't explain death as a trip or as sleep. Children may fear future vacations or bedtime as a result.
            Don’t explain that it was “the will of God,” or “God needed Mommy more than you did.”  These are non-biblical and are rejected by serious Catholic, Protestant and Jewish theologians.  Children will see through the illogic of these statements.  “Why would a loving God make my Daddy die?  How was Mommy so powerful that God needed her in heaven -- what work is so important there anyway?”  Such statements will lead a child to think of God as frightening and evil, doing bad things to people we love.
            You may find ways to describe the event of death as sad, but the state of death (heaven) as happy and peaceful.
            If the death happened after a long illness, you might describe death as a healing:  “Mommy is all better now, and no longer needs a wheelchair or oxygen tanks.”
The child’s concept of death...
            A young child may not understand the permanence of death.  It is important that a child understand that the one who has died will not be seen or heard.  A child’s previous experience with the death of a relative, friend, or even a pet can help the child understand the concept of death’s permanence.
            Young children often know some people die, without realizing that everyone dies.  A young child may be just beginning to understand that death is a universal experience.  This may create anxiety in the child – “Now that Mommy died, will Daddy die soon?”  The child might also worry, “Will I die soon?”  There may be some separation anxiety that needs to be addressed by adults being comforting and being prompt.  If you tell a child you will pick him or her up at a certain time, it is very important to be prompt.

Should the child attend the funeral?
            You don’t want to leave the child out.  However, with young children, you may want to have an adult friend or relative who will sit next to the child who will offer to leave with the child if he or she is bored or feels uncomfortable. 
In all activities surrounding a time of death, it is important to let the child know he or she is welcome to be a part of the family.

Some helpful things to do...
Ÿ Help the child “locate” the deceased.  The child will want to know, “where did Mommy go?“  The location will vary depending on what the family decides, but the location might be heaven, a grave or cemetery, or in our hearts.  It is not uncommon to tell children that a deceased parent is watching over the child.  (Although avoid using the term “angel” since biblically speaking, and in the theologies of Catholic, Protestant and Jewish teachings angels are not people who have died.  They are a separate creation.)
Ÿ Help the child experience the deceased in some way.  Talk about dreams they may have of the deceased.  Even adults need to experience this connection and will place flowers on a grave or create memorials for their loved ones.  The child might find it helpful to place flowers or even toys on a grave.
Ÿ Encourage the child to keep things that belonged tot he deceased.  This helps the child maintain a link to that person.

            If you need assistance, feel free to call the Sunrise Presbyterian Church.  There are pastors, Stephen Ministers, and counselors available to help you or your family.

Sunrise Presbyterian Church
18400 NW 68th Avenue
Miami FL 33015
(305) 821-5841

To all teachers:

As you know, Don Wilson, the father of one of our Kindergarten students, died shortly after midnight on Friday.  I am providing you with a handout we frequently use with families of young children at a time of grief and loss.

I know you have a lot of questions and that many of you are also experiencing profound grief.  Some of our teachers were like part of Don and Jessie’s family.

It is my understanding that Don died shortly after midnight on Friday.  He was riding his motorcycle and was driving too fast for conditions.  As far as the police have been able to determine, there was no other vehicle involved in the cause of the accident.  He lost control of the bike and hit a fire hydrant and the posts at the hydrant.  He was killed instantly.  As a result of the impact, the fire hydrant was uprooted and landed in the street, causing another car to lose control when it drove over the debris.   No one in that car was seriously injured.  People in the neighborhood immediately called 911 and the response time was very brief.  Many of you have expressed concern that Don might have been alone for a while after the accident or that he might have suffered, but this was not the case. 

Most of you probably know that Jessie was not at home on the night of her father’s death, but at the home of a friend.  She was in good care that night and during the following days. 

Who will take care of Jessie is a question everyone asks.  She is being cared for.  Her mother and Don’s family are with her.  She is currently with family at Don’s house.

The funeral will be today at 5 PM.  Several have asked if there will be a casket present and the answer is “no.”  The people in the area of the accident have also asked me to have a brief and private period of prayer and blessing in their neighborhood sometime this week.  Many of them are having difficulty dealing with Don’s death. 

If any of you want to talk with me, or have me visit your class and talk with the children, I would be happy to be of service.

          How many of us, when we heard of Don’s death, thought,  “It can’t be true.”
          “It must be a mistake.”
          Many of us probably thought, “It’s not fair.”
          And we were right.
          It is not fair.
          It is tragic.  It is sad.  It is painful.
          But it is not fair.

          People should die at ripe old ages and die such deaths that at their funerals we celebrate their long lives and all the things the did and all the things they accomplished.
          But we are never ready for the death of such a young man, and such an upright man as this.
          It is not fair.
          We sometimes try to comfort ourselves by telling ourselves.  “It was the will of God.  We must therefore trust God.”
          But not all tragedies in life can be so easily explained.
          Not all tragedies are God’s will.
          In the Book of Job, there is a story of a man who experiences several tragic events, each in quick succession.  He loses his wealth and his family, and finally  Job loses his health.  He suffers a terrible sickness, and then he spends the rest of this Old Testament book asking “WHY?”  He wants to know why God has done this to him.
Now the reader of the Book of Job knows a secret that Job does not know.  We learn this secret from the very beginning in the very first chapters of Job’s book.  The secret is this -- It is not God who comes up with the plan to make Job suffers.  It’s not God’s idea.  It’s Satan’s idea. 
True, God does allow these things to happen to Job, but these events are not exactly the will of God.
I do not believe that it was God’s take Don’s life. 
In the New Testament, a very close friend to Jesus dies.  The Son of God’s response is to cry and mourn.  It is, in fact, a well known passage of Scripture, known because it is the shortest verse of the Bible.  “Jesus wept.”  “Jesus wept.”
I believe that when Don Wilson died, “Jesus wept.
That is the sad news that we have all had to accept this week.  Don Wilson has died and many of us have wept.
For several days we have focused on the sad news.
I would like for us now to focus on the good news.

It is difficult to find good news in all of this.
Some of us have felt great relief in knowing that there were people with Don immediately after the accident and that he was not alone for long.  We have felt comfort in knowing that Don did not suffer at all, but that death was instantaneous.
We have all felt great relief in knowing that by chance, his daughter Jessie was sleeping over at the home of friends  the night of the accident and that she has been well taken care of by her mother and the Wilsons since Don’s death.
These are all practical concerns, and they are all very important.  Let me share some spiritual Good News as well.
First, there is no doubt in my mind that Don Wilson is in heaven, with God.  Don was a member of this church family.  He brought his daughter to our worship and to programs in our church.  Don and I had many long conversations, talking about everything from surfing to parenthood.  In all of our conversations, his faith was always firm.
Don was very important to our church.  He sang in the choir.  Participated in our Living Nativity and Early Christian Dinner.  More importantly, he always brewed the coffee on Sunday night’s at the church.
But members of this church also need to know that you were important to Don.
Ten days before his death, Don met someone and formed a quick and immediate friendship. He spoke several times about this church, and what you had meant to him and his daughter.  On the day of Don’s death, this person came to the church office and told me, “I left work and was so sad over Don’s death, I didn’t know what to do or where to go.  But Don had told me that if I ever needed help or didn’t know where to turn, to come to Sunrise Church, so here I am.”
What a great relationship existed between God and Don, and between Don and this church.  That is Good News, even in this time of sadness.
Don loved his God.  He loved his church.  He loved his family.
I don’t know anyone who was a more devoted father than Don.  He did a great job starting Jessie off in the right direction in life. 

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