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Supporting Kids When Family Members Die

Supporting Kids When Family Members Die

Kris-Ann's Great NanaMy Nana passed away last week. She was 105 (but just days shy of 106). She was my great-grandmother and my kids’ great-great-grandmother. Up until a year or two ago, she was in excellent health. She still lived by herself and didn’t stop driving until she was 102.

The only other experience my kids have really had with death was several years ago when my grandfather died. Both the boys were very young and didn’t attend any of the services (well, except for Ben who was only 18 months old and of course spiked a fever that morning rendering him unable to go to daycare). This time around however, we found ourselves without child care. The wake and funeral took place on a Saturday, so child care and school were out of the picture and all of our babysitters are family members who would also be at the services. My sister found herself in the same position, so we agreed we’d just bring our kids and hope for the best.

Figuring out how to best support my kids during this was a challenge. I spoke to the boys about what happened to Nana a few nights before. We had to cancel a much anticipated ski trip and I was worried about how they’d react to that. They both took the news really well. What I wasn’t sure how to handle however, was the wake. When I told them she died, they asked why and I explained that her body was just very, very old and it stopped working. I’m afraid to tell them that her body was tired or that she was sick or anything because I fear that the next time I go to bed early because I’m tired, they’ll think I’m next to go. Like my grandfather, they think she’s in the sky now (we don’t really talk about Heaven or anywhere else, they came up with the sky thing on their own). So I had no idea how to talk with them about the open casket at the wake. How do I explain that it’s Nana’s body but that she’s no longer alive?

The day of, I packed a bag full of snacks and electronics. I knew I’d be busy helping my mom and talking with people so even though the vision of kids in headphones on iPads at a wake made me cringe, I wasn’t sure what else to do. When we arrived, I ushered the kids to the back of the room avoiding the casket in the front all together. After awhile, we moved all the kids, along with my 13 year old cousin to a separate room where they basically stayed the whole time. My sister’s kids did go up to the casket and said goodbye to Nana, but we didn’t address it at all with ours.

After the wake the kids went back to the hall with my in-laws to set up for the reception afterward. They knew that that part was going to be a party. A birthday party. To say goodbye to Nana on her 106th birthday.

I feel like I didn’t handle the situation very well. If you’re non-religious, how do you talk to kids about death or how have you handled having young children at a service like a funeral? How do you explain to and support children when family members die?



  1. tequella March 10, 2014 at 8:56 am

    First I would like to give my condolences to you and your family. I am religious and it is still hard to tell your kids anything about a family member passing. Their is not a right or a wrong way. There are mixed emotions in the air, and sometimes stressful. when my big momma passed away I was only 10 years old right before her death was my uncle which were both open caskets. I think you did good with giving your kids the option of keeping them occupied because I wish I would have been. It’s a different experience when a casket is closed as a child your mind wonders.

  2. Lisa March 10, 2014 at 3:15 pm

    Hi Kris-Ann
    We’re not religious, and we found ourselves in a similar situation last year when my grandfather died…although Livi actually was present for the death which made it that much more confusing and traumatizing for her. We didn’t intend for it to happen that way, as we were visiting him for his birthday. Livi seemed to handle it really well at the time, but we noticed some anxiety a month or two after the event. We were very honest with her and found a couple of books that helped us – “What is Death” by Etan Boritzer, and “The Next Place” by Warren Hanson were good to turn to (although just a little old for her). I felt like “What is Death” gave Livi some room to make up her own mind about what had happened, and she asked us interesting questions like “How does Opapa eat breakfast now?” Of course there is no “right” answer – we just did the best we could. She did make the connection that we would die someday, and spent some time mulling this over. As cheesy as it sounds, we even made reference to the Lion King and the “circle of life” because she loved that movie so much. A year later, she is not scared anymore and we can discuss death pretty openly. I think every family needs to figure out what’s best for their kids…and there’s no one right way to do it. Good luck! – Lisa

  3. Debra July 3, 2014 at 11:07 am

    We are not religious and we dealt with much of these issues when my father had a stroke and died 2 years ago. We told our kids that when something is alive its cells work to take in nourishment and give out waste. People, animals, plants, all do that. We garden so they know what a dead plant looks like. They can still see the plant but it no longer takes in water nor makes vegetables. We also used the analogy of a table lamp. The lamp is “alive” when it is plugged in and has electricity to turn on the light. When it is unplugged it’s like it is “dead”. We can see the lamp but it no longer turns on to create light. We do have memories of the activities we did together when my father was alive, and certain things in our lives now remind us of him. Death is hard but learning about it is a part of growing up.

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