So, first, no, no one in my life has died. [So that’s not true now, but it was two weeks ago when I started writing this, how things can change] I’ve started watching the TV show Mad Men…7 years late, I know. But, hey, I’ll be caught up in time to watch the final season as it’s released. Anyway, on Friday my youngest son was not feeling so well and just wanted to lay with me on the couch. So I took the opportunity to watch some episodes of Mad Men while he slept. I think I watched ten episodes. In one of them we are told that Betty Draper’s father has died. Sally Draper, the daughter who is about 10 years old in this episode, hears about her grandfather’s death and is deeply saddened, obviously. After Betty’s brother and sister-in-law come over, they are all sitting around the dinner table with Don Draper, the main character of the series, and telling stories about the father/grandfather. One rather humorous exchange comes up and they all laugh at it. Sally comes over and, very angrily, says something about her grandfather being dead and that they were making jokes about it. I had a couple thoughts. One, how do adults deal with grief? Second, and perhaps more importantly, how do children deal with grief and also how to they react to our dealing with grief?
I suppose, to go back to the beginning, perhaps this does tie into a death in the family. I’m sitting here watching this and thinking about this and it’s been just over a year since my uncle died. I recall friends and family members getting up to speak during his memorial service and sharing funny stories about him as we came up to speak. I remember us going back to his house and standing around for hours laughing and carrying on thinking about the man we knew. I think, perhaps, as adults we like to deflect and cover up our grief and tell funny stories. In many ways, this is part of the process. This is the grieving that occurs publicly, when we are surrounded by others. The real grief occurs perhaps at the same time or perhaps much later in private. I think there could be, and likely have been, many volumes written on this. Why do we not grieve in public? Why do funeral home chapels often have rooms set aside for immediate family to sit in during the service so that no one else can see them grieve? What is the human phobia about talking openly about death and grief? However, beyond those questions are the emotions we see in use at various times after a death. To me, one of the most used is humor.
We use humor to cover up the real feelings and then we are able to let those real feelings out at a later time. Certainly this is not the case for everyone, however. In the end though, these things are just something that we have learned as adults as a way to work through grief. Different people deal in different ways, some with humor, some with anger, some with other emotions. As adults we have come to accept these various ways of dealing with grief as normal and allow people to work through grief in their own way, or at least we should, as long as no one is being put at risk. However, how do our children see this? Perhaps more importantly, how do we talk to our kids about the death of a loved one?
First, when a tragic event happens, how do we talk to our kids? Do we talk to them at all? In the Mad Men episode the Don and Betty Draper did not talk to Sally at all about the death of her grandfather (I suppose they could have spoken to her about it, but with TV shows I make the general assumption that if it does not happen on camera it does not happen at all). I wonder how often this happened in families in the 1960’s when the show is based and how often it happens today? I think we have to be open and honest with kids in talking about death. It has to be part of the conversation so that the children can grieve properly and so that they can understand what they see when they see the adults grieving. We must be very careful in our word choices. I think of a story where a boy was told that they’d “lost” his brother ‘Billy’. He convinced his parents to take him to the hospital and begins to go room to room shouting his brothers’ name. When the parents ask him what he’s doing he says “you said we’d lost Billy and this was the last place we saw him. I’m looking for Billy.” This little boy had no idea what the parents meant when they said “lost” and took it to mean the only thing that he’d ever heard it to me. To me this story speaks loudly to the lack of communication between parent and child.
Another thing many folks like to say is that the person “went to be with God.” While this can be fine depending on your personal theology, it can also send some very interesting messages to your children. At some point, perhaps we need to be honest with ourselves and admit that perhaps the deceased was just not the finest person. If we are teaching our kids at home and at church that things like drinking, domestic abuse, and drug use are sinful what does it say to them when we say “Uncle Jack went to be with God today” when we’ve told them, or they’ve seen, that ‘Uncle Jack’ was a domestic abuser who was an alcoholic and a drug addict? Certainly it can go a couple ways with them, but none are necessarily good. Now this is not to say that the adults or children can’t grieve the loss of ‘Uncle Jack’ but I think we need to find a way to do it honestly and openly while admitting some things.
But after all this, once we decide how to phrase what has happened to the kids, I might recommend simply saying that the person “died” to keep it simple, how to we help children express grief and how to we help them see how we are grieving? In helping them express grief at what has happened, I think we need to make sure that they know that it is ok to cry, boy or girl. (boys crying…the humanity…Jesus Wept) But we also need to let them know that it is ok to be angry, it’s ok to laugh, and it’s ok to just sit around in silence every now and then. Above all, however, they need to know that it is perfectly alright for them to show emotion in any way, physically, verbally, or however else is needed. We all grieve in different ways, we shouldn’t try to tell our kids how to grieve.
What about how adults grieve? This goes with the previous statement, we all grieve in various ways. However, if we don’t talk to our kids about how we grieve, we might end up with 10 year old Sally Draper storming into the kitchen, berating us for laughing at grandpa’s death. Be honest with kids in telling them that often times adults will tell stories about the deceased and how we remember him or her. Some of those might be serious and some might be very funny. We might laugh. We have to let these kids know that this is not us being disrespectful to the dead but rather it is us remembering the good times that we had with them. We need to let our children know that this is part of the process for us, this is our way of remembering the dead in a positive way and moving forward with our lives. If we can’t talk to kids about this, it is very reasonable for them to ask the angry question of “why are you laughing?”
Death is a difficult subject to deal with as families and as church communities. We just don’t like to talk about it in general and when death actually happens to someone else, we want to shut ourselves down and talk about it even less. We have all these strange code words that we use to avoid actually saying that someone died (kind of like sex, we hate that word too). But our children don’t know all of our code words and they don’t know how we express grief. We have to intentionally teach them these things or we run the risk of them misunderstanding the whole process and not being able to properly grieve.