DEATH and dy­ing can be scary and un­com­fort­able sub­jects, so par­ents un­der­stand­ably may shy away from them and won­der if it’s a good idea to take their chil­dren to visit a rel­a­tive or loved one in hospi­tal or hospice fa­cil­ity.

I wres­tled with this when my grand­mother was dy­ing and ul­ti­mately chose to take my chil­dren to visit her in the hospi­tal in her fi­nal days. It gave the kids a chance to get to know her and also helped them start to un­der­stand that death is a nor­mal part of life.

Kayce Ho­dos, a li­censed pro­fes­sional coun­sel­lor in North Carolina who spe­cialises in grief and loss, says that while death and dy­ing are dif­fi­cult, they don’t need to be scary. Ho­dos likens the lessons a child can learn from a par­ent’s hon­est han­dling of death and dy­ing to gifts.

She says these chil­dren are bet­ter able to deal with loss and stress, and have a bet­ter per­spec­tive on the nor­mal cy­cle of life and death. Vis­its to see a dy­ing loved one are a great way to in­tro­duce these lessons.

Vis­its also give chil­dren a chance to say good­bye and pro­vide them with clo­sure. They also sup­port a fa­mil­ial cul­ture of open­ness and hon­esty.

Chil­dren whose par­ents in­clude them in these ex­pe­ri­ences, says Amanda Thomp­son, a pae­di­atric psy­chi­a­trist at Chil­dren’s Na­tional Health Sys­tem, are more likely to feel se­cure in the face of a scary and anx­i­ety-pro­vok­ing event.

The mes­sage com­mu­ni­cated in these fam­i­lies, Thomp­son says, is: “We face the hard stuff to­gether. We can talk about these things. And we’re here for each other no mat­ter what.”

If you want to visit a sick or dy­ing loved one with chil­dren but are un­sure of how to pre­pare them, Thomp­son and Ho­dos of­fer these sug­ges­tions.

Be­fore even ask­ing your chil­dren if they want to join you, Ho­dos says, think about why you want to in­clude them. “Per­haps it is to pro­vide the child and the loved one an op­por­tu­nity to ex­press love and say good­bye,” Ho­dos says. What­ever your rea­sons, be­ing clear on them will help guide how you talk to your child.

Talk to your chil­dren about what they are com­fort­able with, and al­low them to say good­bye in a way that they works for them. They can also send a card, write a let­ter, draw a pic­ture or record a video mes­sage. Hos­pi­tals can feel like scary and un­fa­mil­iar places for adults, let alone chil­dren. Talk­ing to your chil­dren be­fore the visit, says Thomp­son, can help them feel a lit­tle less afraid. Ex­plain that their loved one may not look the same as they re­mem­ber. Talk to them about some of the things they may see, such as such as tubes and ma­chines, that may seem fright­en­ing.

Ho­dos rec­om­mends shorter vis­its, es­pe­cially with younger chil­dren, and ex­plain­ing to them: “We’re only go­ing to stay for ‘X’ amount of time, be­cause grandma needs her rest.” Go over any other hospi­tal rules they’ll need to know (such as leav­ing the room when hospi­tal staff re­quire it, wash­ing hands and us­ing quiet voices). Some hos­pi­tals have staff mem­bers, whether so­cial work­ers, child life spe­cial­ists or psy­chol­o­gists, who can talk to your child be­fore, dur­ing and af­ter their visit. They can help you with pre-visit prepa­ra­tion, such as ex­plain­ing some of the things they may ex­pe­ri­ence in the room. And dur­ing a visit, they can be a source of sup­port and dis­trac­tion for a child who is hav­ing a hard time cop­ing.

Chil­dren ask lots of ques­tions. Thomp­son says that while many par­ents think their chil­dren ex­pect them to have all the an­swers, they only need you to be hon­est. “If your child asks a dif­fi­cult ques­tion, you can tell them ‘That’s a dif­fi­cult ques­tion, and dif­fer­ent peo­ple have dif­fer­ent be­liefs about that. What do you think?’”

It can be help­ful to think through your an­swers for some more com­mon ques­tions so that, as Thomp­son says, “you feel less anx­ious in the mo­ment and can of­fer your child hon­est ex­pla­na­tions us­ing sim­ple, brief and con­crete lan­guage that is ap­pro­pri­ate for their age.”

For me, be­ing able to an­swer my chil­dren’s ques­tions about death and con­fronting my own ques­tions made see­ing my grandma in her last weeks more worth it.

In our vis­its, we talked about the weather, read books, looked at pic­tures and did other things that helped us for­get why we came. When we said good­bye at the end of our first visit, my daugh­ters gave her a glit­tery stone with the word “love” on it.

At the time, I thought it would be our last gift. But now, with mem­o­ries of those vis­its and the jour­ney we’ve taken with our talks on death and dy­ing, I know there were many other gifts, for all of us. – The Wash­ing­ton Post

Along with teach­ing them about death, vis­its give chil­dren a chance to say good­bye and pro­vide them with a sense of clo­sure.

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