Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Death and funerals: Helping children understand

This article originally appeared in the May issue of American Funeral Director.

By Linda Darby and Erin Brodbeck, LCSW 

In the funeral business, we are always concerned about the details. We make sure the facilities are immaculate, the staff is educated, the vehicles are washed and waxed and even the edge of the toilet paper is folded into a point. With so many details to keep track of, are we taking care of everything and everyone? What about the children?

Linda Darby, Trigards CEO, and her niece, Erin Brodbeck, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and grief counselor for Sunset Funeral Homes, sat down to discuss educating our children about death and funerals.

Why should we educate our children about death?
Erin: We need to be educating our children to ensure that they fully understand all of the events that surround death and funerals. Their understanding is essential to them being able to process that someone they love is no longer physically living and that things are different now. This understanding also helps children actively mourn and start to make the transition from a physical relationship to a relationship of memory with their loved one. A child’s need to grieve and mourn is different from adults because they are still growing and developing as people. But it is in these formative years that they can learn how to process grief effectively. Educating and involving our children in the grief process is essential in helping them develop good grief skills that can last a lifetime.

What is important when talking to children about death?
Erin: When it comes to talking with children about death, it is crucial to be honest and supportive. I don’t believe in “sugar coating” things to protect them. I think it does more harm than good. Research suggests that if adults aren’t completely honest with children about death, it can make it harder for a child to trust that adult in the future.

Linda: Be open to children’s feelings.  Acknowledge how they may be feeling, and talk about it. Let them know that they have people that love them and are there to support them.

How are you teaching children?
Linda: Sunset Funeral Homes offer a program specifically for educating children called “Memories of the Heart.” It’s designed to get children involved and allows them to open up, ask questions and share memories about their loved ones in a supportive environment.

Erin: A lot of times, we just sit and talk. As a grief counselor, I try to explain the events surrounding a death. Instead of being afraid, they usually have great questions and end up learning a lot. Sometimes we play games that help explain what happens at a funeral and complete activities to allow them share memories.

Are there other ways children can learn about death and funerals?
Many times a child’s first experience with death is when they lose a pet. Allowing them to take charge of the planning of the funeral is a good way for them to learn. This first-hand experience is an excellent teacher.

A few years ago, I lost my dog, General.  He was huge part of my life. My grandchildren were starting to become aware of life and death, and I found the loss of General to be a great opportunity to teach them what happens during a funeral.

It was a beautiful ceremony. We picked out a bronze memorial and an urn for his remains. He had “paw bearers” and even a graveside dove release. The kids drew pictures and read a poem that was written just for him. It was a great learning opportunity, and General will be sadly missed.

Erin: Having services like General’s is another way for children to learn. It also allows them to mourn their pet. Whether it is losing a pet or losing a person in your life, the same approach applies. Be honest and up front. Let them know that it is okay to be sad, mad, frustrated or angry. Make sure they know they have support when they need it.

Is there anything we should know before talking to children?
Be a good listener and encourage them to ask questions. The more information you can give them the better. Teach them to acknowledge the death, mourn the loss and deal with their feelings as they come. If they do this, they will be better able to handle loss in the future.

Linda Darby is Chief Executive Officer for Trigard. Erin Brodbeck is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and grief counselor for Sunset Funeral Homes. They are both members of the Darby family, who owns and operates Trigard, Trigard Memorials and seven funeral homes and a memorial park across the Illinois, Indiana and Arizona.

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