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Can Children Understand Death?

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The limitation on life God set for humans and the entire animal kingdom is something children don’t always realize in their earliest years, but the fact that life is a temporary condition is something we all must eventually learn.

My mother was of the opinion that children should face death when it occurred and as she and Daddy were each younger than seven of their siblings, over the years a lot of my aunts, uncles and their spouses passed away.  Mother took us to the funeral home anytime convention or emotion required her to go herself.  She always thought it was best for a child to experience a wake when the person they would view was not very close to them as preparation for the dreadful day when the deceased would be someone that was close to them.

Today, many families forego a lot of the traditional elements of grieving.  Often there is no wake at all or visitation is only an hour or so before funeral services.  Often the deceased is cremated and there is no body present, only pictures; or if the service occurs after the cremation, an urn.

When I was a child, the local funeral homes still had wakes for two or even three evenings, depending on how soon the burial took place.  There would also, of course, be the funeral service on the final morning or afternoon, followed by graveside services, often conducted while mourners stood in rain or snow.

I think the subdued family visiting which took place at the wakes and the solemnity of the funerals was good for me to experience as a young child.  At those funerals, I would always visualize the lost one in my mind as he or she was in life; and of course I would shed a few tears because I would never see them again.  However, I truly understood the word “gone.”  Viewing those lifeless bodies left me no doubt that nothing was being buried but the husk that in life had encompassed their souls.

My kids went with me to the funeral home whenever I went, just as I went along with my parents.  They grew up with a respectful attitude toward funeral home visits.

When he was eight, one of my sons had to deal with the loss of his beloved grandfather.  We told him about the death as soon as we returned home from the hospital and he was with us at the wake and the funeral. At the graveyard, he followed the men and “helped” with the casket, by grasping the end as the pallbearers carried it to the grave.  I believe this last act of kindness to his grandfather and this small participation in the funeral helped him to accept the loss more easily.

Of course children always ask questions when someone dies.  When my children asked, I didn’t tell them about the soul or heaven.  First I asked them, “If you accidentally had your arm cut off, you would not have your arm but you would still be you, wouldn’t you.”  After they agreed to this, I would mention several other body parts you can live without.  After they accepted the premise that they would still exist with these various parts missing, I told them that when the whole body was no longer useful, the person—although no longer in a body—would go to be with God.

I believe children learn to understand death as they experience the traditions and emotions associated in their family and community with the loss of loved ones. They should not be deprived of an opportunity to develop that understanding.  Death touches each of us sooner or later. Just as a child must learn to make his way in life, he or she needs to develop the mechanisms that will be needed throughout their life to cope with the death of friends and relatives.

Elizabeth Ruth

Read more articles, stories and poems by Elizabeth Ruth at:

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