Carolyn Hax

(Nick Galifianakis for The Washington Post)
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By Carolyn Hax
Friday, October 30, 2009

Dear Carolyn:

My husband and I had a discussion on mourning practices, in particular the way I mourn my sister, who has been dead for 12 years. He said that when we have children, he wouldn't want me taking them to her grave site because he does not believe children should be exposed to mourning or a depressing situation. I think it's important for children to understand death at an early age. And I think it's all right for them to accompany me to the cemetery.

How do we come to a compromise on something I think is so important? My husband says it's hard to discuss it with me because the topic is so close to my heart. The conversation came up because the anniversary of her death falls on a holiday, which makes the usually joyous holiday a very depressing time for me.

Disagreements on Mourning

Small children are soft, their clothes and toys are soft, their food is soft, our voices around them are soft -- I get the impulse to keep their worlds completely soft.

But because every living thing is going to die, death -- of a grandparent, pet, neighbor, even parent or sibling -- eventually crashes the padded party, and your husband doesn't get to say when.

Sometimes well-meaning adults try to keep the padding in place anyway, only to make things harder for the child. "Grandpa is sleeping," that classic dodge, can leave a kid terrified of going to bed and never waking up. Going vague -- "He went away," "He's with God/the angels" -- can set active imaginations running without a map. Anchor faith with facts. Information can scare children, sure, but so can the absence of it.

And as soon as kids can form them, they'll start asking questions: Why, how, where, will it happen to me/to you/to Fluffy/to my toys?

Answering children's questions with simple truths allows them to learn big concepts in small bits, which they can process at their own pace: "All living things stop working after a while," "It's sad, but it's also part of nature," "Most people live a very long time." ("Lifetimes," by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen, is a good primer for parent and child.)

The questions themselves -- which reflect where kids are developmentally -- set that pace.

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