Sickness and Death in the Family

I saw the Lion King Movie many, many years ago BC (before children), but remember the powerful images and song “The Circle of Life.”  Disney has a way of always exploiting the dichotomies of life/death, good/evil, and light/dark to enhance their movies.  This movie had many themes that were powerful for me as an adult viewing a “children’s movie”.  However, life and death is a perennial theme that impacts everyone including young children.  I have had many parents wonder about how best to tell their child about the terminal illness and/or death of a beloved grandparent or close relative.  There is no easy way to do this.  Death can be the scary unknown, but one’s faith and understanding of the “circle of life” can help.  I remember, as a child from a large Catholic southern Louisiana family raise in Houston, (by large I mean – I am the middle child of 13 children), we went to Baptisms, Confirmations, Weddings, and Funerals of family members and close friends at our church just as a matter of routine.  This was just the expectation.  I don’t think there was ever a question as to whether or not, as children/adolescents, we should attend these “circle of life” events.  Being a Catholic meant that we participated as a family.  Funerals often meant for us the sadness of the death, but also the laughter of the stories being told about the person as we remembered and stood outside the funeral home or church gathered for support.  To me, those are great memories – the “circle of life”.

While we worry about the psychological impact sickness and death of loved ones will have on our young children, it is a fact of life, and discretion is advised.  Helping our children understand and discuss (openly and freely) the death of a beloved pet, or finding a dead a bird or butterfly in the backyard, or a dead animal on the road, will go a long way to gradually exposing them to the eventuality of the death of family members.  By discretion I obviously mean, allowing a very young child to visit a loved one besieged by the ravages of cancer may be overwhelming for them.  However, that may be different for a pre-teen or an adolescent who will be better able to put those images in context.  There is not predictable formula to use for when and where to visit and see a loved one dying.  But the rituals in the Catholic faith promote peaceful understand in the context of faith of the “circle of life” events.  It is my opinion, that children should not be excluded from these rituals (funerals).  It’s OK for them to see you cry and be sad over death – you are human and so are they.  Sadness is a healthy and appropriate emotion for them to see and experience at a funeral.  Modeling appropriate emotion in a life event is healthy.