It’s all Relative

On Monday, April 15th at MoMondays Montreal, I had the priviledge of sharing a personal story of mine and how this experience affected my professional practice. The story is as follows:

Teaching Our Children about Death and Dying

Having worked in the field of bereavement counselling for over a decade I thought I had pretty much understood the importance of involving children in the grieving process. Then one day a few years back, I found my family faced with the death of a much admired, much loved uncle. Uncle Oscar died after a brief illness in May of 1999. Because our family had been very close to Uncle Oscar it was clear that we would attend the funeral with our children Ashley (8), and Justine (6). Many family members and friends supported the fact that our girls would be attending the funeral, it seemed natural given my understanding of how children grieve and given the close knit relationship they had with him, they were grieving too. My husband and I spoke to the girls about what was to occur prior to, during and immediately following the funeral; this included what they would see, how people may react, and what the process would look like. All seemed well until I mentioned to my family that the girls would also be coming to the cemetery for the burial. This decision was met with a great deal of anxiety and apprehension from family members; so much so that I myself started to question whether this would be a good idea. Nevertheless, I decided to go with my instinct, particularly since the girls had already expressed a desire and willingness to attend.

The day of the funeral arrived and off we went to the funeral home, where the girls were met with warm smiles. The service was very sentimental in that Uncle Oscar’s children eulogized him by using extremely kind and loving words. Both Ashley and Justine were attentive listening to their cousins talk about Uncle Oscar’s life. We proceeded to the cemetery where Justine promptly made her way directly to the front of the crowd to witness the graveside service and burial. As is customary in Jewish tradition, each mourner has the opportunity to shovel some earth into the grave to assist in the burial process. Naturally, my father-in-law volunteered to partake in this most difficult task, and then took a step back from the grave and stood alone. Simultaneously, Justine quietly approached her Zaidie and gently held his hand. He looked down at Justine and gave her a kiss on the forehead…it was at this precise moment that I was able to confirm what I had known instinctively – that even though this was a moment of intense grief, what better way to be reminded of how life goes on?

Later that same year, the father of a friend of my husbands died after a brief battle with cancer. Naturally out of respect, my husband and I attended the funeral. Our younger daughter, Justine came with us simply because we were on our way somewhere else after the service. Justine, no longer a novice? at attending funerals sat patiently during the service. As the procession was making it’s way to the hearse and the guests were leaving the funeral home, Justine looked up at me and promptly announced, “Hurry up Mom, I don’t want to miss the good part!”.

I retell these two vignettes to emphasize my belief that children are not born with a fear of death and dying, we teach them this. We send a strong signals when we say, “A cemetery is no place for a child” or model our fears with comments and non-verbal behaviours that send out the message that something bad, or terrible happens at funerals. If we are to truly help the next generation support our elderly and their loved ones then we must begin by recognizing our own behaviour.

These incidents taught me something that neither a text book nor theory on grief could haveI learned that it is imperative that we use every opportunity to talk about life and death as part of our everyday routine. Therefore, since that time, I have continued to practice what I preach by illustrating this very principle; for example; when we purchase flowers, I talk about how every living thing has a beginning, middle and an end; some lives are longer, others are shorter. The flowers, once picked will live for only a short period of time. I also make sure to use the correct language when I talk about death–as opposed to euphemisms, and slang words. I no longer tell children that someone died as a result of an accident which might leave room for ambiguity in the mind of my daughters since–the word accident to most children signifies urinating in their pants. I am completely honest, when discussing illness and death with my daughters. This approach has served me very well as other family members became ill or died over the past few years. Most recently, my mother-in-law died after a slow progressive illness. While both my girls were extremely sad, as were my husband and I, the whole funeral process was neither strange nor scary to them. They participated in the funeral process, placing notes and personal letters written to their Bubbie detailing memories of their time spent with together and how much they would miss her. The letters were placed inside the casket, they also served as pallbearers – accompanying the casket into the chapel for the service and then again at the cemetery. Finally, they assisted in the burial process by placing earth on the casket at the cemetery (precisely as my father-in-law had done 10 years earlier).

I suppose as parents we instinctively want to protect our children from difficult or sad experiences. However, what I have discovered through this experience in particular, is that talking and sharing our thoughts and feelings about difficult and/or uncomfortable topics IS in fact protecting them. These are precisely the teachable moments we always hear about. Furthermore, teaching my daughters about death and dying, also teaches them about life and living… and who better to teach them about life than the very person who was responsible for giving it to them?

This blog post was written by Corrie Sirota MSW,PSW. Corrie spoke at the MoMondays Montreal on 04/15/2013! Get your advance tickets for the next MoMondays Montreal here: Buy Tickets

Corrie Sirota-FrankelCorrie Sirota-Frankel holds a Masters Degree in Social Work as well as a Graduate Certificate in Loss and Bereavement from McGill University where she continues to teach in the Faculty of Social Work. Corrie maintains a private practice specializing in various psycho-social issues namely loss and bereavement, parenting concerns and stress management. She is a well known workshop facilitator for schools, agencies, organizations and camps in the Montreal area and abroad and is regularly consulted by local radio, TV and newspapers to speak on various parenting issues. Corrie is married and has two daughters.

Leave a Comment