DEAR HARRIETTE: My wife's aunt is on the verge of passing away, and I need to know how to talk to my children about death. My children are 5 and 7 years old. I do not want to scare them, but I want them to have an understanding about death. I am not sure if they should attend the funeral. They have met their great aunt multiple times, but I am not really sure if they could handle the funeral or even understand what is going on. Any insight you have into this would be great. We've just told the children that Mommy's aunt is sick and in the hospital whenever my wife visits her. -- Talking About Death, Syracuse, New York
DEAR TALKING ABOUT DEATH: The mystery of death is hard to explain -- even to adults. Yet I firmly believe that we should not shield our children from it. More, we should teach them about it and have them participate. You may want to pull out photographs of your wife's aunt to show them. Ask your kids if they remember her. Tell them that she is not feeling well, which is why Mommy is visiting her. Ease in to the fact that she is an older woman who is not well and probably will be passing away soon. That means she will no longer be here to spend time with you, but that she will be in heaven -- if you believe in heaven. Explain that heaven is the place where people go to be with God. They are safe there, and they can watch over us from above.
If you do not believe in heaven, tell your kids that her body will die, but you will always remember her in your hearts. Show them pictures of other family members who may no longer be alive, and point out how you keep their memories alive by looking at pictures and telling stories about them.
Explain that when people die, there is a ceremony to celebrate their lives, and it is called a funeral. Tell them that some people are happy at funerals because they remember all of the great things about the person being celebrated, and others are sad because they miss the person -- and some people have both feelings. Let them know that they will be going with you to the celebration of the aunt's life when she dies, and it's OK to feel whatever they do. You will talk about it afterward.
Invite them to talk to you about their thoughts and feelings about death. Listen carefully, and answer as simply as you can to whatever they ask. The more at ease you are with explaining this aspect of life, the easier it will be for them to be at peace. Since death is a part of life, you should not pretend that they shouldn't know it yet.
There are many good books available that are age-appropriate and may be of help. Here is a link to several of them: childrensbooksguide.com/death.
(Lifestylist and author Harriette Cole is president and creative director of Harriette Cole Media. You can send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or c/o Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106.)