What Our Family Learned about Facing Death
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“What Our Family Learned about Facing Death,” Ensign, Jan. 1984, 53

What Our Family Learned about Facing Death

It was almost three years ago that our infant daughter, Mandi, toddled into a backyard swimming pool and drowned. Our other five children had loved and pampered their little sister, and the days following her death were soul-searing. Yet that very grief became the bonding agent that drew our family together with a loving closeness that probably could not have come about in any other way.

Those days of bereavement following the loss of our little one were in many ways crucial to the emotional adjustment of our remaining children. From our experiences and observations through that difficult time, we have formulated a number of ideas which may be useful to others who must help a child to understand and cope with death.

Immediately Rule Out or Minimize Blame for the Death

As my husband and I huddled together in the hospital after Mandi’s passing, we clasped hands and pledged that never, even in the most unguarded moment, would words of blame be uttered. We knew that our reactions as parents to the death would largely determine our children’s reactions.

Though it is true that some accidents can be prevented, they are nevertheless a part of everyday living. No one is immune to accident; and no one should be required to carry a heavier burden of responsibility than is necessary.

Sometimes a child feels guilt at the passing of a loved one even when the death is caused by illness rather than accident. Past feelings of jealousy or resentment toward the loved one may haunt the child, and a parent must be very alert to this possibility. The problem becomes especially acute if these feelings were accompanied by occasional “death wishes”—the fantasied desire that the child’s “competitor” or “offender” be removed, by death if necessary. Statements such as “Grandma’s illness sometimes made her act unpleasantly, didn’t it?” can do much to help a child deal with guilt feelings.

A parent’s own grief must not obscure the very real needs of his living children.

Talk Freely about Death

It is the unknown that strikes terror into young hearts rather than the reality itself. Gospel teachings concerning death, the spirit world, and resurrection helped our children immensely. We read together such books as “Tragedy or Destiny” by President Spencer W. Kimball. “Mandi is gone now,” we explained, “but the beautiful memories we shared with her will be ours forever, and we can look forward to being with her in the spirit world and on resurrection morning.”

One of our artist friends penciled a drawing of “Resurrection Morning.” In the picture our little one is running toward us with outstretched arms. We love to look at this picture and contemplate its promise.

Always be alert to the questions your child asks. They are a key to what is troubling him.

One of our children was concerned about the decaying process in the grave. We explained how things that were once alive, when placed in the earth, become part of the earth again. These same elements will be recombined in a more wonderful and permanent way to form the resurrected being.

Allow Children to Have a Part in the Funeral Arrangements

Children rely on the closeness of the family in times of sorrow. If they are shuffled off to the homes of relatives and friends while arrangements are being made, they often feel estranged at the very time when their need is greatest.

Some appropriate activities that children might participate in with their parents are selection of the grave site, purchasing of flowers, and purchasing of burial clothing.

Our eight-year-old daughter found comfort in knowing that the nosegay in her little sister’s hands was a gift from her. The boys elected to be pallbearers. We gave them this choice, but they were not compelled. We also talked in detail with the children about what to expect during the funeral services.

Depending upon cemetery regulations, a family may desire to design and set in place the monument. This gave us much satisfaction, and we continue to go to the cemetery often with fresh flowers, an Easter basket in springtime, a flag for the 4th of July, and other special occasions. Perhaps this need will diminish with time, but for now such activities serve as expressions of our continuing love.

Allow Children’s Own Feelings to Dictate Their Actions

Our children displayed a variety of responses to Mandi’s death. One chose to attend school and continue his activities without a break; “business as usual” helped him through the crisis. Others were fearful of facing peers and teachers; they chose to remain out of school until they were able to cope with their feelings. One child returned to school immediately, only to find the experience too much to handle. He returned home and tried again a few days later.

Another decision that should be dictated by the child’s own feelings is the matter of viewing the loved one. Does he want to see and/or touch the person? We told our children to follow their own inclinations. They were content to give their little sister gentle pats on her head and to smooth her dress. It should be explained to children that the deceased will feel differently because “the spirit has left the body. All that we see is the house vacated by the spirit.”

Prepare Children for the Reactions of Other People

Let your children know that other people are uncomfortable with death and will have a hard time knowing what to say. Our children experienced the whole gamut of personal encounters, from the rather blunt comments of peers who said, “I hear your little sister croaked,” or “You mean you are still going to swim in that swimming pool?” to the genuine expressions of friendship: “I’m here if you need to talk,” and “I’m sorry about your sister.”

Make Sure Your Children Are not Excluded From the Grief

One of our children’s school teachers with great insight told of her feelings when, as a child, she lost her brother. People would stop her on the street and say, “How is your mother doing?” as if this girl was something apart from the sorrow of her parents. Sometimes adults, in the intensity of their anguish, fail to see the suffering of a little child whose grief and bewilderment at death is as real as theirs.

This same sensitive teacher spent time with our little boy looking at his pet pigeons, reinforcing a feeling of caring and friendship. This was a valuable contribution to his adjustment.

Allow Children to Indulge Their Memories and Talk about Their Feelings

Our children drew pictures of their sister and made a little diary of things they remembered about her. They love to look at snapshots, and we are fortunate to have a tape recording of her voice. When the wounds are fresh, sometimes the hurt is intensified by these expressions; but memories are often good therapy for the grieving child.

One of the hardest experiences for me occurred when a little neighborhood boy recounted the events of our accident as seen from his eyes. He told about the arrival of the ambulance and of the discussion between his parents at the time. He did not intend to hurt us, but was expressing his own anxieties and uncertainties about death. We have found that the needs of children to express themselves are more important than the momentary pains of recollection, and we are able to deal with the pains on this premise.

Be Alert for Danger Signals Indicating Poor Adjustment

One of our children developed a sudden and intense fear of the dark, beginning with the night of his sister’s death. We have talked about this fear and have allowed him to sleep in a room with an older brother. Such signs of difficulty should be watched carefully and professional help sought if the problem persists or intensifies.

Death is almost always traumatic. We consider the experience a pivotal point in our family’s life. We are not yet immune to pain, but we have discovered reservoirs of strength within our family that we were oblivious to before. We know that life is a mixture of bitter and sweet. But despair is never the answer; hope is. Increased compassion for others, stronger family unity, dependence upon the Lord—all can be rewarding by-products of the intense experiences surrounding the death of a loved one.

Children cannot be shielded from life’s realities. But with loving help from their parents and others, they may arrive safely at a gospel-centered understanding of life and death.

Let’s Talk about It

After reading “What Our Family Learned about Facing Death” individually or as a family, you may wish to discuss some of the following questions during a gospel study period:

1. Why is it important to minimize or rule out specific blame for the death of a loved one?

2. How does a parent’s attitude toward death affect a child’s response?

3. What is the most sensitive way of dealing with a friend or neighbor who has lost a loved one?

4. The author states that “Despair is never the answer; hope is.” What sources of hope does the gospel provide in our lives?

5. What are some of the “by-products” of the experience with death that the author discusses? How can these help to strengthen the family?

  • Betty Jan Murphy, mother of five, is Relief Society Spiritual Living teacher in her Tucson, Arizona, ward.

Photography by Michael Schoenfeldt