An earlier version of this story mistakenly referred to Amanda Thompson as a pediatric psychiatrist. She is a pediatric psychologist. The story has been updated.
Kayce Hodos, a licensed professional counselor in North Carolina who specializes in grief and loss, says that while death and dying are difficult, they don’t need to be scary. Hodos likens the lessons a child can learn from a parent’s honest and transparent handling of death and dying to gifts. She says these children are better able to deal with loss and stress, and have a better perspective on the normal cycle of life and death. Visits to see a dying loved one are a great way to introduce these valuable lessons.
Along with teaching them about death, visits give children a chance to say goodbye and provide them with a sense of closure. They also support a familial culture of openness and honesty. Children whose parents include them in these experiences, says Amanda Thompson, a pediatric psychologist at Children’s National Health System, are more likely to feel safe and secure even in the face of a scary and anxiety-provoking event such as an impending death. The message communicated in these families, Thompson says, is: “We face the hard stuff together. We can talk about these things. And we’re here for each other no matter what.”
If you want to visit a sick or dying loved one with children but are unsure of how to prepare them, Thompson and Hodos offer these suggestions.
Consider your goals. Before even asking your children if they want to join you, Hodos says, think about why you want to include them. “Perhaps it is to provide the child and the loved one an opportunity to express love and say goodbye,” Hodos says. Whatever your reasons, being clear on them will help guide how you talk to your child. If, for instance, your goal is to say goodbye, then you’ll focus on why you think saying goodbye matters. It can also help you feel more in command of a situation that you can’t control.
Ask them what they want. Talk to your children about what they are comfortable with, and allow them to say goodbye in a way that they works for them. Having children do in-person visits is a great option for many families, but it’s not the only option, Thompson says. They can also send a card, write a letter, draw a picture or record a video message.
Prepare children thoughtfully. Hospitals can feel like scary and unfamiliar places for adults, let alone children. Talking to your children before the visit, says Thompson, can help them feel a little less afraid. Explain that their loved one may not look the same as they remember. Talk to them about some of things they may see, such as changes in breathing and skin color, weight loss and things in the room, such as tubes and machines, that may seem frightening initially.
It’s also important to go over how long you plan to stay. Hodos recommends shorter visits, especially with younger children, and explaining to them, “We’re only going to stay for ‘x’ amount of time because Grandma needs her rest.” Go over any other hospital rules that you think they’ll need to know (such as leaving the room when hospital staff require it, washing hands and using quiet voices).
Consider hospital supports. Some hospitals have staff members, whether social workers, child life specialists or psychologists, who can talk to your child before, during and after their visit. They can help you with pre-visit preparation, such as explaining some of the things they may experience in the room. And during a visit, they can be a source of support and distraction for a child who is having a hard time coping or needs a break.
Be prepared for questions. Children ask lots of questions. Thompson says that while many parents think their children expect them to have all the answers, they really only need you to be honest. “If your child asks a difficult question, you can tell them, ‘That’s a difficult question, and different people have different beliefs about that. What do you think?’ ” she says. At the same time, it can be helpful to think through your answers for some of the more common questions so that, as Thompson says, “you feel less anxious in the moment and can offer your child honest explanations using simple, brief and concrete language that is appropriate for their age.” For me, being able to answer my children’s question about death and confronting my own questions made seeing my grandma in her last weeks all the more worth it.
In our visits with my grandma, we talked about the weather, read books, looked at pictures and did other things that helped us forget why we came. When we said goodbye at the end of our first visit, my daughters gave her a glittery stone with the word “love” on it. At the time, I thought it would be our last gift. But now, with memories of those visits and the journey we’ve taken with our talks on death and dying, I know there were many other gifts, for all of us.
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