DEAR ABBY: After a recent family gathering, several of us decided to visit the grave of a recently departed loved one. As we gathered our coats, a 3-year-old in the group asked where we were going. She was told, "To visit Aunt Lola."
"Where?" she asked. The answer was, "Heaven."
When we arrived at the cemetery, a relative pointed to the grave and told the child, "This is heaven, and this is where Aunt Lola lives." The child became noticeably upset and could not understand why her favorite aunt was living underground. Then she was told to blow kisses to the grave and became nearly hysterical.
When I later saw the child's mother, I asked if she knew what the other relatives had told her daughter about having gone to "heaven" to visit Aunt Lola. The mother said that was what she wanted her daughter told, and she was telling her the same thing!
Abby, I have taken several child psychology classes and have read a great deal on the topic. I've always been under the impression that children should never be told that a deceased person has "gone to heaven" because the child will then believe that heaven is a place they can visit, and that the deceased person may be coming back.
When I explained this to my relatives, they said I was being ridiculous because she was only 3 and would not remember any of this. Abby, I think she will remember. These relatives are well-educated, not ignorant. What is your opinion? -- RIDICULED RELATIVE IN RICHMOND, VA.
DEAR RELATIVE: Experts agree that when talking to children about death, the language should be simple and honest. Euphemisms, such as telling a child a dead person is "asleep" or "in heaven," only increase confusion and fear. The discussion should be kept on an appropriate level for the child's age. Their natural questions will guide you -- nothing should be overexplained.
Children grieve just as adults do. They should be assured that it is all right to express their feelings. When children lose someone with whom they have been extremely close, grief counseling may be in order.