Q.This letter is about our triplet daughters, who are 5; our boy, who is almost 3; and their great-grandmother, who has terminal cancer.
We learned about her illness 20 months ago, and since then we have flown out of state to visit her every four to six months, staying there for a few days so she can see the children and they can have some memories of her. We've told the children several times that their great-grandmother is sick and that she may go to Heaven soon -- we are Christians -- but we usually talk about her illness only if one of the girls asks us when she's coming to visit or when we will see her again. The 3-year-old probably doesn't understand what we're talking about, but the 5-year-olds seem to realize that people grow old and die and that this is the normal sequence of events.
Should we take the children to the funeral? Should we be saying or doing more to prepare them for this? Although their great-grandmother is not part of their daily lives, they do have affection for her.
A.Children have been so shielded in the past 50 years that they are often unprepared for the reality of death.
If your children don't go to the funeral, you will simply be postponing their exposure to the inevitable and somewhere down the line you will probably regret it.
Taking them to visit their great-grandmother is also a good idea. Children who never visit an old-folks' home or make and take presents to the sick will be more self-centered than those who do, and often more fearful because they know so few people who are different from themselves.
Children need to be part of the sad as well as the joyous ceremonies and traditions of their clan. That's how they learn that family members stand by each other, even when times are tough.
As for the memories your children will make -- who knows? In 10 years your little boy will probably tell you that he doesn't remember a thing about the funeral and your daughters will only remember bits and pieces, but the parade of people who pass by their pew at church and the sadness in their eyes will be tucked deep inside their memories. Even so, it will help them deal with death better when they lose someone who is much closer and more familiar to them than their great-grandmother.
Don't overdo their exposure to death, though. There is no need to take your children with you to the funeral home during visiting hours, especially if the casket is open, but they will be impressed by the solemnity of the church service, which may even keep them quiet. Being naturally curious, they will also be intrigued by the burial itself, and they should enjoy the reception afterward, if other children are there.
In this way, your children will grow up knowing that death makes people sad but that it is as natural as birth, even when it comes at unnatural times or from unnatural causes.
Death is an abstract concept to young children, however, and it needs a rite of some sort to make them understand that it is part of the cycle of life.
Wise parents encourage -- and always try to attend -- the somber funerals their children give each time another of their hamsters, gerbils or goldfish dies.
You also want to get down on your knees with your children at night and help them pray for their great-grandmother now, not that she will get well -- because that is unrealistic -- but that she will be comfortable and content. And when she dies, let them keep blessing her at night and also frame a picture of her in her later days, as they knew her, and hang it in their room. They may start saying "Hi" to their great-granny when they pass by.
Read books to the children about death, too. "When Someone Dies," by Sharon Greenlee (Peachtree; $14.95), is a straightforward yet gentle explanation and ideal for children ages 3 to 5, and so is "Peach & Blue," by Sarah S. Kilborne (Dragonfly; $6.99). This book, which focuses on the passages of life, is awfully sweet.
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