Talking about loss and helping children grieve

Last month we spoke with Dr. Anne Klaeysen, a parent and Brooklyn resident, who has decades of experience in counseling as a Humanist Life Advisor at Columbia University. Here, she continues to offer her valuable insights, and helps parents and caretakers broach the sensitive—and sometimes taboo—subject of death.

As leader of the New York Society for Ethical Culture, in Manhattan, Dr. Anne Klaeysen helps oversee the organization’s Ethics for Children class, where youngsters learn about things like morals, the Golden Rule, and how to become good citizens. A recent class opened up a conversation about death, by introducing a wonderful children’s book titled What Happens When We Die? by J.R. Becker. In it, the author depicts life and death as natural processes. Here’s an excerpt: “See, one thing that makes things special, is knowing that they end. That’s what makes our lives so precious. And each moment with our friends.”

All of his books address existential and essential issues in a scientific and honest fashion.

According to Dr. Klaeysen, who holds a Doctorate in Pastoral Counseling, when discussing the loss of a loved one, parents should: listen, empathize, and know when to stop.

“That last point is most important. Talking too much has the potential to overwhelm a child,” she explains. “At the end, the most important thing to stress to children is that even if a person is physically gone, they can still be remembered through stories and memories.”

Tammy Scileppi: Why do so many people fear that great unknown, death?

Dr. Anne Klaeysen: In my experience, it’s not death people fear; it’s dying. We all understand that we are mortal. What we don’t know is how we will die and when. My grandmother prayed that she would die in her sleep, painlessly and without suffering. People are concerned about the quality of their lives and fear prolonged and painful dying. Many of us also experience family and friends suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s, a kind of death before actually dying. The majority of members in my congregation support death with dignity and lobby for assisted dying.

TS: Everyone grieves differently. How are children affected by loss and grief?

AK: Differences in grieving are more about the relationships we have with the deceased than the age at which we experience death, although younger children can be influenced by the adults around them and teens by their peers. The circumstances of a death — old age, illness, accident, suicide, etc. — also determine our responses. We are shocked at sudden and unexpected death, especially when someone is young. We may feel guilt or shame after a suicide and relief when someone’s suffering has ended.

In my experience, honesty and empathy are essential to the grieving process. Again, it is most important to listen to children’s thoughts and concerns and to be aware of what is age appropriate.

It’s also important to consider the age-appropriateness of certain traditional rituals around death. For example, in my opinion, no child should be forced to view a corpse in a casket.

TS: What were some of your children’s experiences with loss?

AK: My husband and I discussed death with them when they were quite young; it was before any of their grandparents had died. Like many families, they had pets that died. Logan, the turtle, is buried in our Brooklyn garden under a stone sculpture of — what else? — a turtle. They also had friends whose grandparents died, and we discussed what they had been told. In one case, a child was rescued halfway up a utility ladder in his family’s garden, holding on for dear life, because he had been told him that his grandfather had climbed it to go to heaven and he wanted to see him. Again, honesty is essential.

My memory is that [my daughter] Emily (now 32), more than [my son] Andrew (now 34), entertained deep existential thoughts at a young age, around 5. She would muse about death. Mostly I listened, as parents must always do. She didn’t seem fearful; it was a wondering that wandered along different tangents. Together we imagined how life began and ended. We also read stories from other faith and cultural traditions.

It may be comforting for a young child to imagine a beloved relative or friend in a “good place,” but care must be taken to also be honest. A good place can be a loving memory or a cherished keepsake. I don’t recommend dashing a young child’s hope of being reunited with a loved one. We can wonder with them what happens and acknowledge how much love we share.

TS: How does the Ethics for Children class (for ages 2-11) help kids in their everyday lives? I understand that violence in the news has also been discussed.

AK: We discuss everything. Our emphasis is on building, nurturing, and keeping loving relationships. That involves developing a vocabulary for feelings, learning how to articulate what we are experiencing, and cultivating empathy for other people’s thoughts and feelings. Our children learn to identify and stand up for their values as individuals and in group settings.

At the recent Ethics class, death wasn’t the only subject discussed; it was also about nature itself and how humans are part of nature.

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So, when you touch upon loss and death with your children, why not talk to them about these and other profound and fascinating topics, as well? Is there an afterlife? Did we exist before we were born? If so, where? And the book will help guide you with fun verses and whimsical illustrations, when your kids ask those sensitive questions.

While there’s a lot of bad stuff going on out there that kids are being exposed to — violence, crimes, and mass shootings — our world still has plenty of good things to offer, so that’s where their focus should be.

“There are so many other interesting things happening in our lives that engage us … especially love,” says Dr. Klaeysen, adding: “And, what gives our finite lives meaning, is an important topic.”

Ethics for Children class at New York Society for Ethical Culture (2 West 64th Street between Broadway and Central Park West, every Sunday from 11am-12:30pm (unless otherwise noted on website). Classes are free to families who are members of the Society, or donation-based entry from non-members. Parents may stay with their kids. What Happens When We Die? is available on Amazon.

Tammy Scileppi is a Queens-based freelance writer and journalist, parent, and regular contributor to New York Parenting. Interviewing hundreds of New York City’s movers and shakers has been an amazing adventure for her. Scileppi’s work has appeared in a variety of media outlets. She has also written book cover copy for Simon and Schuster.