I was with a gentleman recently who was far too young to die... and his greatest ache was saying goodbye to his daughter, who hadn't hit her teen years yet... so you can only imagine how hard this was going to be for her to absorb.
Added to the difficulty for her, was that no one really explained to her what was happening, she did not understand that her dad was dying until it was a few short hours before he did. She knew he wasn't well, but not that her time with him was limited. One of the things I really struggle with in this work is how people tend to keep the reality of death and dying from children, assuming they are protecting them somehow.
I apologize for sounding harsh, but in my opinion... we are not protecting them, we are taking from them the opportunity to have last moments with someone they too love. We take from them the chance to make last memories, or take photos, or to prepare, and sometimes they miss their chance to say goodbye. We are taking their choices from them, by not giving them one. And trust me when I say that this will be somerthing they carry with them for the rest of their lives. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard something like, "no one ever told me my grandmother was dying, I never got to say goodbye."
I have witnessed very small children at the bedside, drawing pictures for someone who was dying, reading to them, holding their hand, taking bedside photos, and loving them for whatever time left they were going to be gifted. Children are amazing with their questions, and wanting to understand the when and the why of end of life. They have the luxury of not carrying a dark cloud of death over their head like some of us do, and being a little more open and accepting of death and dying. I think we need to trust that, and at the very least, give them the choice to sit with, and say goodbye to someone they love. This in no way will take away their pain from the loss, but I truly do believe it will be one regret they do not carry with them for the rest of their life.
Please be honest with your children. Let them know when someone they love is dying. There are so many ways to do this, and so many books you can give them or read to them. Francesca Arnoldy recently published a book called, "Map of Memory Lane," which helps children explore death and the inevitability of loss. It is a wonderful way to help children understand the reality of death, and perhaps even guide them to have conversations with someone they love who is or will be dying one day.
If children can feel love, then they can also feel grief, so they need to understand loss and what that means. Perhaps if we talked more openly to them about this, they would have a deeper appreciation for the time they have with the people in their lives. We need to do it in a kind, compassionate and gentle way, but if we are honest with them... if we give them the choice to spend time with someone who is dying, and prepare their hearts to say goodbye, it will allow them the chance to deal with it healthier as they grow into adults.
Children will more than likely experience the loss of a pet, a neighbor, a friend, or a family member very early on in their life. If we tell them the truth, in a language they can truly understand, and give them permission to talk about their feelings and emotions, we create the opportunity for building continued trust, respect, and communication.