Get Your Kids Some Funeral Pants

Teaching Children the Art of Death

child and griefPregnant with my first son, sitting at the bedside of my terminally ill uncle, I felt sad irony pulling at me. There were jubilant kicks within my womb, sequences of rhythmic hiccups from my unborn son, and a wrenching, labored breathing from the bed. Impending birth sat side by side with impending death. I was the keeper and the witness.

I held the hand of my uncle as he quietly ended his journey on earth. There is nothing to ever compare to a moment like that. But there are things we can do to prepare ourselves and our children for the darkness of dying. We can bring light to this season. There is an art to death, shown in the stories of our history. It is in our customs and rituals, and in how we teach our children to embrace the inevitable.

How we respond to death is the art. It is the church ladies and their decadent desserts, served to the mourners. It is in the classic “hot-dish” that my dad’s hometown church served after every funeral. It is in the tables of keepsakes we arrange, filled with photographic montages of the lives of the ones we just lost. The art is how we carefully select flowers, hymns, and prayers. This art is not for adults only. Children need to be present in mourning so that the realities of death do not frighten them – the art of death becomes a comfort to them.

Do not fear funerals. So often I hear parents say they don’t want to bring their children to funerals because their kids are too young, will be too sad, or will perhaps not behave in a mourning-acceptable way. Stop keeping them from funerals. Help them navigate these rituals. Not only have my children attended these events with me, but as teenagers they now volunteer at church to help during funerals – often not knowing who has died, but knowing that a family is grieving and their small service can help the process.

Be real. Avoid terms like sleeping, going away, and other terms that can confuse young children. Children can be frightened of sleeping or of others leaving when death is compared to these events. Be real with your faith, too. I firmly believe that the reality of death is not as frightening for my children because they have faith – that real and honest belief that this life is not all. It is not the end.

Treat the ill as the living – not the dying. My dear children have lost more loved ones than sometimes seems fair. But when the opportunity has been present – during times of illness or late in life – we seize the moments to share time, emotions, and laughter with those loved ones. We let our kids know the reality of the situation, but we help them focus on the living.

Be OK with tears and confusion. Cry in front of and with your children. Let them cry, ask questions, or even seem unaffected. They process in their own time and in their own way – but only if you’re honest with them and let them move through it. You don’t have to have all of the answers.

Have funeral pants. When my oldest was about 13 she was cleaning her closet as fall ended and the start of school neared. I called to her from the hallway – Be sure to let me know if there is anything in particular you need before we go shopping! Her relaxed reply met me at the corner – Well, I have enough funeral pants but I need a new coat.

Just like the changing seasons from summer to fall, and from carefree play to school studies, our wardrobes reflect the seasons of life. We have those date-night dresses, interview jackets, lazy Saturday yoga pants, and backyard BBQ capris. And we have funeral pants. Our go-to outfits for saying fare-thee-well and I’m going to miss her, too. For all the living we do, death is inevitably a part of our living. Get your kids some funeral pants.


Build Family Traditions and Build Stronger Families


Family Playing Board Game At Home

We are in a snow globe, sitting peacefully amid the plastic, waterproof flakes, and suddenly someone gives us a shake – a full maraca-style shake that leaves us dizzy, unable to see clearly, and disorientated. This is how life sometimes feels in my house when it comes to traditions, and I’m struggling as a mom to help my children settle amid the blizzard. Our traditions for holidays, birthdays, and even just those little, comforting traditions have become jumbled. Illnesses, changing extended family dynamics, jobs, and plain-old growing up have impacted our family traditions so much that sometimes it doesn’t seem like we are even in the right place – our globe just doesn’t feel like our own. So I’ve been on a quest these last couple of years to provide the comforts of traditions for my kids – with flexibility.

Building Traditions with Kids

Ask my husband – I’m nuts about traditions. And I am not alone (or even too crazy) for feeling this way. According to research, Dr. Martin Cohen says that children are drawn to rituals and traditions, “artistically, spiritually and emotionally.” Traditions also help to provide our kids with healthy foundations that:

  • Strengthen core beliefs
  • Build self-esteem
  • Give tools with which to deal with stress, fear, and anxiety
  • Provide kids with a sense of control, security, and continuity

When we provide routines and traditions for our children, we are giving them more than memories in their scrapbooks. We are using those rituals to help shape who our children are, and who they will become.

5 Ways to Develop Rituals with Kids

The older my kids get, the more I see how our memories of past experiences can be vastly different, yet we can still hold on to the same fondness for a particular tradition – just for a different reason. Research also shows that there are different reasons why our kids remember certain aspects of their childhood, and what we can do to strengthen those memories.

  • If you want them to remember it – do it more than once. Think about the things you remember from childhood. They are the routines – watching movies together on Friday nights, stopping for doughnuts after church, looking for constellations as you drove home from Grandma’s house – these small things we do without great planning, but they were done often.
  • Write it down. If your child is too young to tell you how she feels, write down her reactions to certain things. If you kids are old enough, ask them to dictate the memories and record their thoughts on the backs of pictures, as captions on digital pictures, and in journals you keep together.
  • Record their stories. Video and voice recordings are priceless keepsakes. One of my favorite things my husband has done is to record the voices of our kids at different ages – just simple things like saying (or trying to say) their names, saying phrases such as, “I love you, Mommy”, and capturing their laughter in audio files. (The kids absolutely love to listen to these as well, and it only takes seconds to record.)
  • Have them choose their favorite drawings and school papers – Their reasons matter to them and they will know why it has been saved. You can keep some of your favorites, too, but the memories will be more meaningful for your kids if they had a say in which items are kept.
  • Save a few tangibles – Their baby hat, first keychain, or first pair of glasses – they all represent memories. My children love to touch and hold the items that they remember cherishing. My 9 year-old still has the teddy bear his siblings picked out for him before he was even born.

Building Traditions with Kids

Sometimes we get so busy with the day-to-day craziness that we lose sight of all the ways we have the opportunities to build traditions with our kids. According to publications from Ohio State University, there are 3 main types of traditions parents should recognize for their kids:

  1. Celebrations – These are traditions built around special occasions such as holidays and birthdays.
  2. Family Traditions – These are specific traditions that are unique to individual families, such as Friday night game night, summer vacations at Grandma’s, etc.
  3. Patterned Family Interactions – These are routines that we often forget help to create traditions that are important to our kids, even small things such as morning routines, who cooks dinner, reading together in the evening, etc.

What to do When Traditions End

It just isn’t the same. I’ve heard those words a lot in my house over the past two years, and my heart sags each time my kids say this phrase, for I am feeling it, too. However, we are slowly emerging from the sadness of losing some traditions and getting excited as we start to build new ones. If your family is struggling, especially this holiday season, with trying to build new traditions and rituals, try some of these ideas.

  • Volunteer together. Nothing makes me and my kids stop the pity-party like volunteering to help someone less fortunate, and the volunteer opportunities can serve as new rituals for your own family.
  • Start small. Sometimes when I see my kids sad about a tradition ending as life events have changed things beyond our control, I want to wave my Magical Mom Wand and make a grand gesture that will distract them. But trying to overdo new traditions can backfire. Can you really keep topping it each year? Instead of going all out, try getting back to the basics of the tradition.
  • Think outside the box. Get creative in your solutions and try celebrating in ways that are non-traditional. If birthday celebrations are the source of sadness because of a loss in your family, spend a year celebrating half-birthdays. Because our kids can no longer celebrate individual birthdays with their cousins who moved out of state, we now hold one ginormous birthday bash each summer. The number of candles on the cake represent the total ages that the cousins will turn this year – which means we will soon light 87 candles! (Last year we had an ice cream cake and my husband had to use a butane torch to light the candles – not a good combination.) The kids also draw names from a hat and go on shopping missions with just $2/each at the thrift store and dollar store. Then the magic happens as they wrap the gifts in duct tape, decoy boxes, and anything else they can create.
  • Don’t try to recreate. My mom always hosted the most magical Christmas Eve celebrations for our family, but now we are a country apart and my kids still miss that magic. The first year I fretted over how I would duplicate what Mom did, but then I realized that what I needed to do was create new traditions for my family.