When my daughter was three, her best friend died in an accident. Like most children, she was left filled with heartbreaking and practical questions. Children are easily confused; words may not convey the same meaning to them that they do to us. The one question that my daughter asked repeatedly that baffled me most at first was, "What happened to his head?" Finally, I listened to my explanations about "his body" not working any more through her three-year-old understanding, and thought of how she drew pictures-the head, and then the body. So I needed to go back and re-explain what I had thought were already basic terms.
The most difficult thing for me to explain to her was about cremation. "Fire" and "burning" to her meant pain. So initially I told her that there was a special way to make the body into ashes, which could then return to the earth, just like when a person or pet died and was buried to return their body to the earth, while the "real person"-the part of them that laughed, talked, and loved-their spirit-went to heaven. (Ecclesiastes 11:5,7 says, "Then man goes to his eternal home... the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.") It was only years later that I was able to give her a better explanation of what cremation means.
Dr. Alan Wolfelt of The Center for Loss and Life Transition has written a guide to helping children understand cremation. "If there is one rule of thumb to keep in mind as you guide this child through the funeral experience, it is this: Follow the child's lead. If you listen to her and pay attention to her behaviors, the child will teach you what she is curious about, what doesn't interest her, what makes her scared. Follow her lead as you answer her questions about cremation. Give her only as much information as she wants to know. If she has more questions, she'll probably ask-especially if you've shown her that you are someone who will answer her questions honestly and openly," he says.
He suggests first becoming familiar yourself with what cremation involves (white-hot heat in a sealed chamber that reduces the body to bone fragments, which are then refined down to the consistency of coarse sand). Cremated remains are often called "ashes" because of the traditional reference, "ashes to ashes, dust to dust," but they are not actually ashes. Carefully share whatever information seems appropriate for this particular child. He reminds us that "...children can cope with what they know. They cannot cope with what they don't know or have never been told. Often their imaginations can conjure up explanations much scarier than reality." For children, Dr. Wolfelt likens the appearance of the cremated remains to "fishbowl rocks" or "chunky sand," and with this description, advises letting the child decide whether or not to see the ashes.
It is also important to remember, as when we discuss any aspect of death with children, to use concrete terms and avoid euphemisms and untruths in describing death. While at the time, "He went to heaven," or "God took him home," may seem to be a gentler way of explaining death than, "He died," it is more confusing to a child, who may begin to see God as a being to be feared, or to wonder when the loved person will be allowed to come back again. Explain death for what it is, and help the child understand that while we have many unanswered questions, God cares and will comfort us. The Centering Corporation has many helpful books for grieving children of all ages as well as for the adults who want to help them. Ask for their catalog. An appropriate book may be the guide you need to help you find the right words to say.
Dr. Wolfelt concludes, "Remember that any child old enough to love is old enough to mourn. And children who mourn need our honesty, our love and our acceptance of their many thoughts and feelings, questions and concerns, if they are to heal."
Dr. Alan Wolfelt is the director of The Center for Loss and Life Transition. His books, brochures, and other bereavement support information may be obtained by writing or calling The Center for Loss and Life Transition, 3735 Broken Bow Road, Fort Collins, CO 80526, phone 970/226-6050
About the Author:
Carol A. Ranney is a single adoptive parent of seven children. Two of her sons have died, one at age 13 in 1996 and one at age 31 in 2007. She has published a free newsletter for bereaved parents for 10 years. Having lost friends and a cousin at ages eight, 14 and 15, she has a lifetime of experience in grief and mourning: what helps, what doesn't and where to find resources.