Q&A: 4-year-old and death

Ally writes:

"My grandmother is dying of cancer, and I am conflicted over whether ornot it would be ok to have my 4 year old boy at the funeral home for a little while. We've talked to him about death plenty, as my mother passed away unexpectedly last fall although they were not close enough for it to have a long-lasting impact. What I am unsure about is that there will probably be an open casket. I have issues with that myself, partly because I want to be cremated once I die because to me once you're gone, you're gone and your body is just the vessel that is left behind. But I also was very deeply impacted by my grandfather's passing when I was 14. He and my other grandmother raised me, his death was the most awful thing that could possibly happen at the time, and I was completely freaked out by my grandmother kissing and touching his dead body.

So, a 4 year old and an open casket - inappropriate? Or is it just me?

And since I am writing about death and my 4 year old, I may as well toss this in. We have a 13 year old dog that has cushings disease and at some point we'll either no longer be able to afford to treat it or we'll have to put him to sleep because the medication isn't effective any more. A couple of years ago before he was diagnosed and there was a good chance he'd die of old age my husband and I talked about what we would do if he died at home. In that scenario we are both comfortable with giving our son a chance to say goodbye before taking care of the body. Now that we are facing euthanasia, I don't know what the best thing to do is. I don't want to make up something and just have him disappear. But I don't know how up front to be about the euthanasia part. How do you explain to a preschooler that you are putting a pet to sleep? Is it appropriate to do so?

I typically shoot for honesty above sugar coating things, but again, I have a bad situation in my past where we had to put a beloved dog down because she started behaving in a way that couldn't be managed by us. So I can't think very clearly about this."

I completely think the open casket thing is cultural, nothing more. In my culture of origin, open casket is the norm, and to not do it would be disrespectful to the deceased person, and also everyone would worry that the survivors didn't get to have closure because they couldn't actually see that the person was dead.

I didn't know that everyone didn't do open casket until I was an adult, and my first reaction was that people who had closed casket were avoiding the normal grieving process! So it just goes to show that different things work for different people. One person's unbelievably creepy is another's normal, and one person's repressed and avoidant is another person's respectful.

Having said that, I can remember going to open casket visiting hours from a very young age (around 4) and not being creeped out by the body, but finding it interesting that it was so obvious that this was just Uncle Joe's body, but Uncle Joe himself wasn't there anymore. It made the difference between alive and dead really concrete for me as a kid in a matter-of-fact way. But that probably had to do with the fact that the adults there were all confortable with open casket themselves, and had grown up with it, too, so it was just a given.

So my answer is that it's not going to hurt your son to see your grandmother's body in the open casket, but if you don't think you will react well to it yourself, then you shouldn't be the one with him, or you shouldn't bring him. As to your question, it sounds like you think open casket is inappropriate in general, so this really doesn't have anything specifically to do with your son. If you decide you can deal with it, bring him. If you think it'll be too strange for all of you, then don't come. He'll be fine either way, as long as you're honest about what happened to your grandma and he gets a chance to express and feelings about her being gone.

Oh, the dog. It's so hard to lose a pet, and anticipating how your kids will react to it makes it even worse. But kids seem to be way better at accepting the circle of life than adults are.

When I had to put my sweet, elderly cat down a few years ago, my older son was 4 and my younger one was still a baby. I told my older son that Siggy was in a lot of pain, and that we had to "help her die" by giving her some medicine that would make her die. I believe in heaven so I added that in, but the "help her die" angle works pretty much universally, I'd guess. Euthanasia is an act of kindness, so approaching it that way is going to let you be honest about all angles of it. You can still be sad that the dog is sick and in pain, and that you'll miss the dog, but you know you're doing the thing that's best for the dog.

Anyone want to share what you told your kids about putting down a pet? What have your experiences been with death rituals for humans--open casket, closed casket, cremation, kids at visitation/wakes/shiva, etc.?