Explaining Death

Laura's Dad5In Laura’s Story, Part 4, Christine shared her memory of the death of her dad.  I imagine the caregiving aspect for her sister, Laura, presented new challenges with the passing of their dad. I look forward to the next segment and learning how they all coped.

I was touched by Christine’s words, “Our adversities don’t define us unless we let them, but experiencing the death of a parent when you’re in your childhood changes your life. You learn the world isn’t a safe place and death is very real and can strike at any moment.”

Although Laura was twelve years old when her father died, her disability made it hard for her to understand death or “going to heaven,” which is what her mom told her every time she asked where daddy was.

The death of any loved one is hard and the recovering process takes time. I remember clearly my first experience coping with the sudden death of an aunt when I was a child. Our capacity to understand death varies depending on age and abilities.

I found an excellent article, http://kidshealth.org/en/parents/death.html#, which describes a child’s capacity to understand death and their possible response to it by age. My summary of the article is as follows:

Before five or six years old, their view of the world is very literal. Therefore, explain death in basic and concrete terms such as the person’s body wasn’t working anymore and the doctors couldn’t fix it. If the death was a result of an accident, you might explain what happened and because of this very sad event, the person’s body stopped working. You may have to explain that “death” means that the body stopped working.

Young children have a hard time understanding that all people and living things eventually die and they won’t be coming back. Even after you’ve explained this, kids may continue to ask where the loved one is or when the person is returning. It’s important to calmly reiterate that the person has died and can’t come back.

The article suggested avoiding the use of euphemisms, such as telling kids that the loved one “went away” or “went to sleep” or even that your family “lost” the person. Because young children think so literally, such phrases might inadvertently make them afraid to go to sleep or fearful whenever someone goes away.

From age six to ten a child can start to grasp the finality of death, however, they don’t understand that it will happen to every living thing one day. Often, kids this age personalize death and think of it as the “boogeyman” or a ghost or a skeleton. They deal best with death when given accurate, simple, clear, and honest explanations about what happened.

As children mature into teens, they start to understand that every human being eventually dies, regardless of grades, behavior, wishes, or anything they try to do. Questions may naturally come up about mortality and vulnerability. For example, a sixteen-year-old’s friend dies in a car accident and a teen might now be reluctant to get behind the wheel or even ride in a car. The best way to respond is to empathize about how frightening and sad this accident was. It may also be a good time to remind your teen about ways to stay safe and healthy, like never getting in a car with a driver who has been drinking and always wearing a seatbelt.

Teens also tend to search more for meaning in the death of someone close to them. A teen who asks why someone had to die probably isn’t looking for literal answers, but starting to explore the idea of the meaning of life. They may experience some guilt, particularly if one of their peers died. It’s best to encourage them to share their grief with you or another trusted, empathetic family member or friend.

A young child might not cry, but react to the news by acting out or becoming hyperactive. A teen might act annoyed and may feel more comfortable confiding in peers. Whatever their reaction, don’t take it personally.

Learning how to deal with grief is like coping with other physical, mental, and emotional matters — it’s a process.

For more information on this topic see http://kidshealth.org/en/parents/death.html#

Related Article: Twelve Things I’ve Learned About Grief 

Thanks for reading. I look forward to seeing your thoughts and/or experiences with explaining death to a child in the comment box below. Sharing what has or hasn’t worked for you could help another person on their pathway through grief.

Laura’s Story, Part 4

Christine

Christine Scott

My name is Christine Scott. I’m a forty-six-year-old mother of five children and I grew up with a mentally disabled sister. In my first segment of Laura’s Story, I recounted her birth and slow development. In Part 2, I told about the impact of her seizures and Part 3, I told about her fight with cancer. Processing the memories and spending time reminiscing with my mother about my sister’s life is exactly what I needed—and my mom too.

 

How come when we finally get our lives into a good place, it seems like forces combine and everything falls apart? At least this is how I used to feel before I grasped a better  understanding of adversity and how it can work in our lives for our progression.

After Laura’s recovery from cancer, life was good for my mom. Laura’s hair came back in thick and with soft waves. She gained weight and stopped catching every virus which came along. Mom’s career at Ogden Weber was blossoming. She had a support system and was learning new things every day.

Then my dad felt like it was time to have another baby. Mom didn’t agree. That ship had sailed years ago for her.

But in the end, Mom lost, Dad won, and my little brother was on his way, which put ten years’ difference in age between us. I can say I didn’t blame my mom. It was like starting over again with another new family. This meant she’d have to quit her job to take care of a newborn and she’d have to face all those what-if’s she’d experienced with Laura.

My brother, Eric, was born on September 2, 1979, a month after his due date and weighed over eleven pounds. Laura loved him. She often touched his hand and made funny faces at him.

Laura's Dad2

Dad, Klaus Hill

At this time, my dad was under a tremendous amount of stress. In addition to my brother’s birth, one of his business associates was pressuring him to motorize a previous hang glider he had built. This man weighed much more than anyone who’d flown this particular hang glider before, which was making it hard to get the design right.

We were currently renting another older home, which the owner sold out from under us. There weren’t any houses for rent in Morgan, so we started looking at rentals in Ogden and my dad would make the drive to Morgan—which meant I’d have to change schools. This was the backdrop to the tragedy which struck my family.

Laura's Dad3

You should have some type of warning before your life unequivocally changes so you have the chance to do things differently—to take advantage of those last moments to say “I love you” and “goodbye.”

October 10, 1979, I woke up late and feeling grouchy. I thought I had missed my bus and daddy offered to give me a ride to school, but I glanced out the living room window and saw kids still waiting in line for the bus.  So I hurried to my bus stop while my dad’s old car rattled by. I had no idea I’d never see him again, but over the years I’ve always regretted not getting that last ride to school with him.

It was during lunch I found out. I was in line getting my food—enchiladas. It’s funny how certain details stay with you for a lifetime. Two women stood at the far end of the room glancing at all the students. When I recognized my neighbor, my stomach fell.

Suzanne, my neighbor, motioned for me to come over. I wandered over, carrying my lunch tray. She told me to leave my lunch and that I was needed at home. Those were the only words she said to me, no matter how many times I asked her what was wrong. She just walked me to her car and drove me home in silence while I silently fought the urge to scream at her.

Laura's Dad

People I’d never seen before crowed into my living room. The county sheriff was there. Everyone stood like statues. I don’t remember who told me my dad had been killed while taking the glider with design flaws on a test flight. I’m assuming it was my mom. I don’t remember if she held me while I cried, but I hope she did. I don’t even remember if Laura was there. I’m thinking she might have still been at school.

Our adversities don’t define us unless we let them, but experiencing the death of a parent when you’re in your childhood changes your life. You learn the world isn’t a safe place and death is very real and can strike at any moment—a fear I’ve always carried for every person I’ve ever loved.

Laura's Dad4

Laura’s disability served as a blessing for her because she didn’t understand death or “going to heaven,” which is what my mom told her every time she asked where daddy was. While alive, he was away from us so much she thought he’d simply be home in a few days. I wonder how long it took before she stopped waiting for him to come home.

I wouldn’t trade these experiences because they have made me more compassionate. I wish my kids knew their grandfather, but the trials we must pass through are not given to us by chance—every hard time in our lives has a specific purpose, a specific design. We may not understand that purpose in this life, but some day we will, and that knowledge is what keeps me going during the dark days.

Thank you, Christine, for sharing such tender and difficult memories. I love the pictures of your dad and can see the passion he had for hang gliders in the expressions on his face.  I imagine this caregiving journey for your sister took an unexpected hard turn with the passing of your dad. I look forward to your next segment and learning how you all coped. 

 

 

Laura’s Story

ChristineMy name is Christine Scott. I’m a forty-six-year-old mother of five children and I grew up with a mentally disabled sister. I know Barbara was inspired when she asked me to contribute to the Uniting Caregivers blog. Processing the memories and spending time reminiscing with my mother about my sister’s life is exactly what I needed—and my mom too. Thank you, Barbara, for listening to the Spirit’s promptings.

It’s time to share my story.
When babies makes their entrance into the world, fingers and toes are counted and soft cheeks are kissed. That newborn scent is inhaled and it feels like those in attendance have been transported to heaven—at least for a moment.  Expectations are high. Parents look into their beautiful child’s face and eagerly watch for a glimpse into what the future holds for their precious little one. They picture milestones: that first smile, that first word, and that first step. They can’t wait to see how their beautiful child is going to grow and progress.

But what happens when those long awaited milestones don’t happen, when friends and loved ones question your child’s progress, and maybe suggest something is not quite right? When illness and hospital stays become commonplace, how do these parents cope?

Laura & MomMy sister, Laura, was born on July 3, 1967, the first child of Klaus and Elaine Hill. Laura didn’t come into the world in the anticipated way. My parents lived in Hoystville, Utah, an hour’s drive from the nearest hospital. Since it was my mom’s first baby, she didn’t know what to expect. She didn’t realize the back pain she was experiencing meant she was in labor, and when she finally figured it out—there wasn’t enough time to drive to the hospital. As a result, my sister was born in a parking lot at Parley’s Summit, in Parley’s canyon. And that’s what it says on her birth certificate. “Place of Birth: Parley’s Summit.” No joke.

No one thinks they’re ever going to have to deliver a baby on their own in the car, right? My young and inexperienced dad rose to the occasion like my mom’s very own knight in shining armor and the delivery went pretty well. I don’t know if he drew on his experiences of living through World War II in East Prussia, but he safely delivered his daughter and drove his wife and baby to the hospital.

My dad passed away when I was ten and I wish I could go back in time and ask him about his fears and worries at this moment in his life. I’d like to know about the strength he drew on to provide for his daughter in wife in the face of such scary and uncertain circumstances.

There was one problem my dad didn’t realize, but he couldn’t have done anything about it anyway. My sister was born three to four weeks early—and as a result—was not getting enough oxygen. As a result, the cells in her brain were damaged during the remaining thirty-minute drive to the hospital.

Laura BathMom and baby were released from the hospital in the typical way and everything seemed to be fine despite Laura’s rocky entrance into the world. My mom quickly settled into the life of a new mom, enjoying her beautiful daughter and running her tiny home. As time passed, Laura didn’t crawl, she scooted on her bottom, and at twenty months she wasn’t walking or talking and didn’t show any interest in being potty-trained.

Well-meaning family and friends commented on Laura’s lack of progress, but my mom refused to believe them. Her response: “She isn’t that delayed for an eighteen-month-old. She’s just a late bloomer.”Laura was beautiful. Laura was perfect. She was everything my mom dreamed her to be, so she didn’t listen. Even the family doctor supported my mom’s theory about my sister being a late bloomer.

Looking back, my mom admitted she didn’t want to know. She didn’t want to face the hard, cold reality that something was seriously wrong with her baby.

Laura & ChrisTwo years later I was born, which helped my sister developmentally more than anything else. She now had a living, breathing model of how a normal child progressed constantly at her side. Besides, she couldn’t let her little sister show her up. She walked within weeks after I took my first steps, but she still never crawled. Up until the time I walked, scooting on her bottom got her where she wanted to go. She began to put together simple sentences. Things were looking up for my sister. My mom’s worries were finally being laid to rest. She could now breathe a little easier and look those family members and friends in the face and say, “Look, she’s fine, just like I told you.”

LauraUntil Laura experienced her first seizure.
As I reflect back on that time in my mom’s life, on her fears and how alone she must have felt, I wish I could put my arms around her and my dad and pull them into the embrace of a loving God and having that supreme guidance and comfort the Holy Ghost provides. It would have made all the difference. But they were both strong and they did the best they could, and I love them for it.

This ends the first part of my story of growing up with a mentally disabled sister, which I will continue over the next few weeks. I hope I will provide some insights which may help you with some struggles you face as a caregiver.

Thank you Christine for sharing part 1 of Laura’s Story. We look forward to your future segments.