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Creating Memory Capsules to Help Your Loved Ones Grieve

By Hospice, Living Well

Sometimes, leaving a tangible reminder is just what your family needs to grieve well. Tangible items give surviving family members something to hold when they miss you. Something they can treasure when the pain of loss is sharp. If you’ve been diagnosed with a terminal illness or have reached a significant age, consider utilizing your time to create memory capsules that will help your family grieve in the days, months, and years to come.

By leaving close family members such a precious gift, you help them participate in a healing ritual that will play a key role in helping them grieve well and heal. Plus, it will give you a sense of relief to know that you’ve said what you need to say before your final days come.

Older man sitting at desk writing letters

What is a Memory Capsule?

Similar to a time capsule, a memory capsule is a container that holds precious mementos, photos, notes, and other memorabilia associated with a loved one. Once the capsule is complete, you put it away until a specified time. This might be a year after the loss, or even specific times, such as weddings, graduations, and other special events that you may not be able to attend.

A memory capsule could include letters to loved ones to be opened on special days, gifts, video messages, favorite photos, and cherished mementos. Then, when the date comes to open the capsule, surviving family members will feel like you are there with them in that special moment.

Cherished jewelry in a small box

Remembrance is a key part of grieving well and creating a memory capsule is one way your loved ones can remember, reminisce, and acknowledge the pain of the loss. The capsule will allow your loved ones to feel your presence when they need you most. Regardless of what you decide, when they open the box, tender memories will flood them with love and help them lovingly remember and grieve.

How to Create a Memory Capsule

With a few simple steps, you can create both a memory capsule that will bring healing and comfort to your family.

1. Determine where you’ll store the capsule or capsules.

First, you must decide where you will be storing the capsule. Whether you decide to store it indoors or outdoors will affect what kind of container you use and what types of items you place inside. So, before you can really begin, you need to determine how you plan to store your memory capsule. Also, select a person to be in charge of the capsule. This person will be responsible for storing the container and bringing it out of storage at the appropriate time.

Woman holding box on lap while sitting on couch

2. Choose your container.

Once you’ve determined where you plan to store your capsule, it’s time to select the type of container you intend to use. For indoors, you could select a box, a plastic container, a jar, or some other container that is easily storable.

However, if you plan to keep the capsule outside or you intend to bury it, there are a few things to consider. For outdoor safekeeping, find a container that is non-biodegradable, like something made of metal. Water, dirt, pressure, and critters won’t be friendly to your capsule so make sure that it’s strong, weather-proof, and watertight.

3. Decide what to include.

Next, it’s time to decorate your container (if you wish) and gather your memories. Since this activity is meant to be part of a healing ritual, you might write a letter or record a video message for your loved ones individually or as a family. This may be for a special occasion or for a later date in general.

For your message, record a favorite memory. Share funny stories. Give words of wisdom that you think they may need after you are gone. Share how proud you are of them and what they mean to you. Then, gather photos, drawings, trinkets, clothing, or other cherished items. Find the items that are meaningful to you and place them in the container.

Woman sitting at table selecting photos

If you are planning to store your capsule outdoors, consider using good paper and permanent ink. Try not to use paper clips, staples, or rubber bands because they will rust or break with age. Consider placing photos and other paper items into plastic sleeves to further protect them.

WARNING: Make sure you don’t include flammable materials or anything else that may cause damage, such as liquids, food products, matches, or lighters.

4. Set a date.

Typically, memory capsules are left closed for several years, but you can do whatever works best for your family. For example, if you are putting together a memory capsule for a loved one’s future birthday, Christmas, or wedding, they may open it within one year or it may be several years down the road. The most important thing is to select a time frame and make sure that everyone participating knows what the time frame is.

5. Seal your container and store it.

Once you have had a chance to add your letters, messages, and memorabilia to the memory capsules, all that’s left is sealing the container and storing it away until the agreed upon date. You can even write a “Do not open until” date on the outside. Enlist the help of family members so that your plans and wishes are known.

Little girl opening small memory capsule with her mom beside her

For extra protection, seal memory capsules with tape or a lock. If you are writing letters for future dates, entrust those letters to a family member. That family member can deliver the letters at the appropriate time.

Helping Your Loved Ones on Their Grief Journey

It may be difficult to think of all the special moments you may miss. The process of putting together messages and mementos can be very emotionally demanding. But in the end, it is worth it.

Dr. Alan Wolfelt, a nationally respected grief counselor and educator, says this about grief: “From my own experiences with loss as well as those of thousands of grieving people I have companioned over the years, I have learned that we cannot go around the pain that is the wilderness of our grief. Instead, we must journey all through it, sometimes shuffling along the less strenuous side paths, sometimes plowing directly into the black center.” So, as you lovingly help your loved ones confront their emotions head on, you can help them begin to deal with your loss and find a way to move toward healing and eventually reconciliation.

Just remember, you’re not alone on the journey. If you need help creating your memory capsules, lean on your loved ones. They love you and can be a source of support through the process of saying your goodbyes.

Everything You Need to Know about Death Doulas

By Grief/Loss, Living Well

Have you heard about the growing use of death doulas for the terminally ill? No? Then you’re in luck. We’re going to take a look at what death doulas are, how they help individuals and families, why it’s a growing practice, and more. Let’s get started!

What is a death doula?

You may have heard of a birth doula – a woman who walks alongside a new mother from before birth, through birth, and then following the birth. Well, a death doula does much the same, but for death rather than birth.

Also called death midwives, end-of-life coaches, or even transition guides, these doulas take a holistic approach. They are trained to focus on the physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual aspects of death, leaving medical to healthcare professionals. Their overall goal is to normalize the experience of death for everyone involved, taking it from an uncomfortable experience to one filled with rich, sweet memories.

So, what do death doulas actually do?

Though many death doulas are medically trained, their focus is not medical care. Instead, they work in partnership with hospice palliative care to ensure that your loved one’s whole person is taken care of on the path toward death. One of their main concerns is to help the terminally ill person have a good death, whatever that may look like. For some, it may mean being surrounded by family; for others, it might mean watching a favorite movie and then sitting quietly with their most treasured people.

In addition to helping people take a measure of control over death by defining what a good death looks like to them, a few other things that death doulas help their clients and families with are:

  • Suggesting ideas for optimal comfort, including giving massages, holding hands, etc.
  • Providing spiritual, emotional, or social support to both the dying and their family
  • Simply being with the dying person, whether to listen, stay silent, read a book aloud, watch tv, whatever they want
  • Educating both the terminally ill person and their family about the process of dying so that they know what’s coming and what to expect
  • Working on legacy projects with the dying, like writing letters to loved ones, taking family photos, creating gifts, writing down life experiences, etc.
  • Offering consistent presence during the final days, easing any fear or anxiety that the dying person may feel and allowing family to take much-needed breaks
  • Encouraging the dying to take care of estate planning, such as completing a will
  • If the family wants, a doula can help plan a funeral or memorial service or provide grief support

Because death doulas often take a holistic approach, they will be familiar with home vigils, wakes, and even natural or green burial options, if these are of interest to you (they will work in tandem with a local funeral home). However, the doula will not pressure you into any decisions; their job is to find out what the dying person wants and advocate for that.

Why is this practice growing?

In many ways, death has become sterile and impersonal, often occurring in hospitals or nursing home care facilities. As a culture, we have come to avoid death. This tendency can cause those who are dying to feel more alone and isolated. With the aging Baby Boomer generation, it’s likely that there will be a rise in the need for alternative care services that may allow more people to stay at home during the end-of-life phase or provide care at hospice or other care facilities. Death doulas may be an answer to fill in the gap needed for end-of-life care. A hospice nurse can only come at certain times to assist while a death doula can be much more available to assist the family, even after the death has occurred.

How do you hire a death doula?

It’s an individualized process. Some doulas have private practices while others work in connection with hospices, hospitals, or other community organizations. But no matter how you find a doula, you should sit down and interview them first. After all, if the doula is going to walk through weeks or even months with you and be privy to intimate details of your family’s life, you’ll want to choose someone you feel comfortable with, who honors your personal beliefs, and is trustworthy.

Before securing the services of a doula, you can review what types of assistance you want (which days/hours of the week, cooking meals, sitting with the dying person, working on legacy projects, etc.). Most often the doula will tailor their work to suit your needs and preferences. So, go over everything before you sign anything. Also, a conversation about compensation will need to occur, with the doula letting you know their current rates. Each doula sets their own rates, so you will simply need to ask.

What kind of training do doulas have?

While the practice is currently unregulated, there are associations that offer certifications. A few learning institutions that offer training are the International End of Life Doula Association (INELDA), Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont, International Doulagivers Institute, and Lifespan Doula Association (LDA). While the programs at each institution vary, most death doulas receive 6-9 months of training before they receive a certification.

Janie Rakow, the president of INELDA, says this about the role of a death doula: “We journey with the person who’s dying and their family to help them navigate through the whole end-of-life process. Although hospice is wonderful in the death and dying field, they don’t have the hours and hours and hours that the doulas have to really, deeply, get into this work. It’s kind of an adjunct to hospice where we’re there for them [the dying] to provide emotional, spiritual, and physical support.”

Is a death doula right for your family?

It’s entirely up to you. Look at your support network. Decide if your friends and neighbors will help you through a loved one’s terminal illness. Ask yourself questions: Do I want help? Do I want help from someone I know? Or, would I like to bring in someone with specialized training? Do I have the funds to pay for a doula’s services? Also, talk with the person who is dying and get their thoughts. Do they want someone who will offer consistent support? Do they have projects they want to complete?

Whatever you decide is best for your family is the right thing to do. Right now, most families don’t utilize the services of a death doula. However, if this sounds like just what your family needs, start putting out feelers in your community. You may find just the right person to journey with you.

6 Ways to Focus on the Good During Tough Times

By COVID-19, Living Well

With many communities facing shelter in place restrictions and social distancing requirements due to the COVID-19 outbreak, many of us are struggling with the loss of our freedom, independence, and ability to enjoy the people and activities we love. This sense of isolation and loss of social interactions that help us feel loved and connected can bring about unexpected feelings of grief and loss. Grief is essentially the pain of separation from loved ones, and that is exactly what many of us are experiencing today.

When grief and loss are at their worst, focusing on the good things you still have can have a profound impact. Whether you are grieving the loss of connection with your loved ones, the loss of a job, or even the loss of your peace of mind and independence, focusing on what you are grateful for can help you foster resilience and adaptability as you face what life throws your way. Focusing on the good will help you persevere through the hard times and find hope for the future.

6 Ways to Shift Your Focus in Tough Times

When times are tough and your anxiety level is high, it’s easy to get stuck in a downward spiral. While it’s good to let yourself feel what you feel, remember to turn your focus to the good things in life as well. Today there may be storms and rain clouds, but tomorrow, the sun will shine again. As you face the challenges of each day, let’s talk about some good things you can focus on that will give you hope for the future.

1. Connect with the People You Love

No matter what kind of loss or crisis you are facing, there are people who love you and want to support you. Be intentional about making time to connect with family, friends, and co-workers who have a way of brightening your day and bringing a smile to your face. Even with limitations on gatherings in place, you can still reach out by text, email, and even video chat to feel connected. Don’t underestimate the power of your heartfelt words at a time like this. In time, the troubles you are facing will not be quite as difficult as they are today, and the people in your life can make all the difference in making your days the best they can be.

2. Remember the Good Times You’ve Had

Though you may be struggling right now, things haven’t always been this way. It may be difficult at first but take time each day to dwell on a time when you were happy and joyful. Perhaps it was a family vacation, a college experience, a road trip with friends, or accomplishing a long-sought-after goal. If you have some extra down time on your hands, you might want to work on a project such as a video slideshow, picture album, or photo wall that will help you dwell on the good times you’ve had. Even now, you can set your mind on a goal for the future that will give you drive and determination to move forward and figure out what life looks like beyond today’s struggles.

3. Take this as an Opportunity to Grow & Develop

Depending on your situation, you may want to take this time of transition as an opportunity to turn over a new leaf. If you’re mourning the loss of a job, you might take this time to explore an area of personal development you’ve never focused on. If you have experienced a loss of mobility or independence, look for ways to continue to express who you are and learn more about yourself. This could mean taking online classes or reading books on new topics. A perceived setback can actually be a launching pad to something new and better that you never expected.

4. Renew Your Hopes & Dreams for the Future

Despite what your feelings may tell you today, life will move forward. While things may not go back to the way things used to be, you will discover a “new normal.” But today, even in the midst of fear, sadness, or anxiety, remember that things will get better, and you will get through this. Now is a good time to consider your own hopes and dreams. Think about what you’ve always wanted to do and plan how to get it done. Looking forward to the future will give you a renewed sense of hope and a reason to keep moving forward.

5. Focus on Helping Others

When you’re experiencing grief or loss, you have a natural tendency to focus inward, dwelling on your own thoughts and feelings. Expressing what you feel is an excellent step toward healing, but you need to grieve in “doses.” In other words, you can’t do it all at once. It takes time. By helping others, you can actually give yourself a break from your problems and experience a sense of accomplishment and pride. In the midst of whatever you’re facing, taking time to care for others is an excellent way to not only make a difference in your community and the lives of others but to find continued purpose in your own life.

6. Appreciate What You Do Have

Even though you may be tempted to focus on what you don’t have, try to be intentional and focus on what you do have. That could be as simple as appreciating a lovely day or a good movie. Or, you can focus on loved ones who are close to you and give them extra doses of your time and attention. Take time every day to think about or write down a few things or people you are grateful for, and watch your attitude and appreciation for what you do still have begin to change.

These are just a few ideas for shifting your mindset so you can focus on the good things in your life when times are hard. The pain of this grief, loss, and difficulty won’t last forever. In the meantime, you can take this time to think about your goals in life, all the things you are grateful for, and where you want your life to go in the years ahead once you have come through this difficult time.

Nurturing Hope in Difficult Times

By COVID-19, Living Well

“Hope is the pillar that holds up the world.” — Pliny the Elder

The caller to the Center for Loss asked a question that is on the hearts of many right now: “Are we going to get through this?”

It became obvious as the conversation continued that she was experiencing feelings of grief and in search of borrowing some much-needed hope. As I hung up the phone after 20 minutes, I found myself yearning to write about hope, because, especially during difficult times like these, it is indeed the pillar that holds up the world.

As director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition, I advocate for our human need to acknowledge and embrace our darker emotions. Our culture usually isn’t so good at honoring loss and supporting others who are grieving, even though they are essential parts of our lives. Instead, to our detriment, we tend to focus almost exclusively on the happy and the distracting and the fun.

It’s a question of balance. We need both, you see. We need to honor the light and the dark, the happy and the sad—and everything in between—because all of it belongs. All of it is authentic. And whatever is authentic is normal and necessary.

Usually we’re out of balance because we choose to shine our awareness only on the “good stuff.” But right now, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, we’re at risk for the balance tipping too far the other way, in the direction of fear and despair.

Yes, in difficult times, we must remember to hope.

What is hope? It’s an expectation of a good that is yet to be. It is an inner knowing that the future holds positive things. It is trust that no matter the current circumstances, the days to come will reveal happiness. It’s forward-looking—yet experienced in the now.

Like mourning, nurturing hope is active. It’s something we can do. Let’s look at what we can do to embrace hope even as we are experiencing the many losses caused by this pandemic.

Practice mindfulness

As I write this, most of us in North America are sheltering in place. Though our normal lives have been completely disrupted and we may be experiencing very real personal losses (sick friends and family members, financial jeopardy, lost connections with loved ones, to name just a few), many of us are also, in this moment, safe and comfortable.

Practicing mindfulness means learning to be present to our immediate surroundings right now. As I write this, the sun peeks out from billowy clouds in a denim-blue sky. I see spring crocuses blooming. My dogs sleep at my feet. Whenever I am mindful of the present moment, I find gratitude, and gratitude helps me access hope, which we might think of as gratitude for what is to come.

Being mindful in the now also helps me build relationships with the people I care about. In the now I can share quality time with my wife, and even though I can’t visit them in person, I can also spend time each day on video calls with my children and friends. The more I can use this time to strengthen relationships with my dear ones, the more hope I will have for the future gatherings we will share.

Relinquish the illusion of control

There’s a fine line between a) informing ourselves about the pandemic and steps we can take to keep ourselves and others safe, and b) overconsuming information (and misinformation), causing undue stress and even despair.

In this information age, we have limitless content at our fingertips. We could read, watch, and listen to new information about COVID-19 for many hours a day and still never be “caught up.” It makes sense that we might be tempted to overconsume information in an effort to feel in control of what is happening. The trouble is, we as individuals can’t control this epidemic, and we can’t even fully control what happens to us and our loved ones.

Relinquishing the illusion of control can lessen our anxiety and help us to build trust in our own capacity to cope with whatever happens. If we work on mindfulness, we don’t have to obsess and worry. Instead, we can learn to be OK with our lack of control and trust in our own resilience. When tomorrow comes, we will handle what comes tomorrow. Today we are only responsible for today.

Build hope

If we believe that our futures will include moments of joy, love, and meaning, we already have within us that spark of hope. We can grow that spark into a flame by intentionally building hope into each day.

How do we build hope during difficult times? Here are a few ways:

  • By taking part in activities we care about to the extent that we can while sheltering in place
  • By engaging in spiritual practices
  • By making a collage of words or pictures that symbolize hope in our mind and heart
  • By intentionally imagining the futures we desire
  • By making future plans that excite us and that we know we will enjoy
  • By helping others
  • By staying in close contact with the people we care about, ideally through video and phone calls
  • By taking care of our bodies, our minds, our hearts, our social connections, and our souls

Consciously Choose Hope

Please understand that hope is not something that will just passively float into your life. Instead, hope will enter when you create ways to consciously bring it into your day. Despite these challenging times, the door you open to hope each and every day will dramatically influence the quality of your life.

Consciously choosing hope means deliberately focusing on it—paying attention to it, inviting it into a given moment, and letting yourself feel it as it enters. Be creative with how you give attention to hope and invite it in. Moment by moment, choose hope over fear. Choose hope instead of despair. If you start feeling hopeless, act with intention to bring hope to that moment.

If hope feels out of reach right now, consider borrowing a little to get you through. When you cannot muster the energy to cultivate it yourself, it’s possible to receive hope from others. It’s appropriate in times like these to turn to people who have hope to lend.

How do you know someone is hope-filled? Look for friends and family members who have a hopeful outlook on life. They are people who have a positive energy when they are in your presence, and they make you smile when you simply hear their voice. They are also usually caring, nonjudgmental listeners. The energy they radiate can anchor you right now. Remember—hope is a renewable resource. Borrow it now, and know that in the future, when the time is right, you can pay it forward to someone else in need.

In the words of Victor Frankl, I remind you, “Everything can be taken away from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” As you choose your own way during these challenging times, I invite you to nurture hope and to be grateful for your life each and every day.

 

About the Author
Dr. Alan Wolfelt is an author, educator, and grief counselor. He serves as Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition and is on the faculty at the University of Colorado Medical School’s Department of Family Medicine. Dr. Wolfelt has written many compassionate books designed to help people mourn well so they can continue to love and live well, including The Mourner’s Book of Hope. Visit www.centerforloss.com to learn more about the natural and necessary process of grief and mourning and to order Dr. Wolfelt’s books.

Healthy Practices for Your Later Years: 80s

By Living Well

You now have eight decades under your belt, which means you have a lot of valuable life experience and many memories to cherish. Now that you’ve reached this milestone, it’s even more important to make healthy practices a core part of your everyday life.

Let’s go over 10 helpful and healthy practices to help you make the most of the coming years.

1. Focus on Balance

Movement continues to be an important part of life, so keep staying active with walks, yoga, and other forms of exercise. However, as you age, it’s also important to focus on balance. Falls and broken bones are a serious concern for older adults and can significantly impact the way you live your life, including whether you can continue to live independently. As you add exercise to your life, incorporate specific movements that help with balance, mobility, and flexibility.

2. Eat Nutrient-Rich Foods

For many older adults, it’s hard to get all the right nutrients into your body. Eating well doesn’t have to be complicated if you take the time to create an eating plan for yourself. Ask your doctor what you should include in your diet and make changes from there. Even if you haven’t paid as much attention in the past, that’s okay. Simply adding antioxidant-rich foods to your diet will help your body repair itself and prevent future damage.

3. Don’t Miss Your Screenings

You’re at an age when your health is a bit more fragile, so screenings could literally add years to your life. Talk to your doctor and find out which screenings you should do each year, and then, go ahead and schedule the appointments. Don’t feel like you need to screen for everything – just the ones that make the most sense for you. Going to the appointments may take extra time and feel inconvenient but taking that extra step will allow you to catch any health concerns early and protect your body from illness.

4. Protect Your Brain

There are many ways to stimulate and protect your brain. For instance, simply spending time with friends can keep your brain healthy and protect you from loneliness. Also, try new things. Letting your brain get bored leads to less stimulation and engagement, so find ways to interact with the world around you. Have interesting conversations, play games (find a few you’ve not played before), or learn a new skill. Alternatively, you might consider teaching a younger person one of the skills you already possess, like sewing, playing an instrument, gardening, or woodworking.

5. Ask for Help

There’s absolutely no shame in asking for help. Now that you’re enjoying your 80s, you will need more assistance than you used to, and that’s natural. If you have family and friends nearby, they are typically more than willing to lend a hand, but first, you need to let them know what you need. You may not want to “bother” them, but more than likely, they’d rather you ask than do without. If you are specific about what you need, people will gladly step in and help you.

6. Be Safe

Safety is a serious concern for many seniors, especially those who are living independently or are experiencing physical or mental decline. Some of the most common concerns are: falls, driving safety, extreme hot or cold weather, elder abuse, and identity theft or fraud.

To prevent falls, de-clutter your home and make sure walking paths are clear. For driving safety, objectively consider your driving capabilities, and if it’s time, don’t be afraid to let someone chauffer you around. With weather extremes, pay attention to the news or a weather app and adjust your home’s thermostat accordingly. And for elder abuse, identity theft, or fraud, cultivate a good relationship with a younger, trusted family member or friend who can teach you how to keep your personal information safe and recognize criminal behavior.

7. Get Enough Sleep

The benefits of sleep can’t be overstated. Sleep improves concentration and memory, gives your body time to heal itself, refreshes your immune system, and helps prevent health problems like diabetes and weight problems. Doctors recommend 7-9 hours of sleep per night for the average adult. More sleep means less risk for heart disease, stroke, or dementia. If you are having trouble sleeping – a common problem for older adults – talk to your doctor. They can help you find a solution that will lead to long nights of rejuvenating sleep.

8. Complete Your Estate Planning

If you haven’t already done so, now is the time to complete your estate planning. You may still have many years left to enjoy, but none of us are guaranteed tomorrow, so getting your affairs in order is an important task. For your estate planning needs, speak with an attorney who can help you write a will, complete powers of attorney, record your advance care directives, and answer any questions you may have.

Additionally, though it may not be your favorite topic, you should consider putting together a funeral plan that outlines how you would like your life to be remembered. Putting a funeral plan in place allows you to control the budget and the way your life is honored. On top of that, it also protects your loved ones from having to make difficult decision during a time of grief. Instead, they can focus on honoring your life and offering comfort to each other.

9. Invest in Relationships

Without people, our lives would be less rewarding and full. Those we love add an extra dimension of hope to our lives. Even though you may spend more time at home these days, look for a few activities a week where you can spend time with others. If you are homebound entirely, call, write, or email others. Invite them over for meals or just to chat and catch up. If many of your friends have already passed, talk to your neighbors or ask your children to bring over some of their friends so you can cultivate relationships with a younger set of people. Connecting with others in a meaningful way will brighten your days and give you joy.

10. Find Your New Purpose

If you are here on Earth, you still have purpose. However, at this stage in life, your purpose may have changed compared to your working years. When you were younger, you may have found purpose in a career, raising a family, or hobbies and activities that your body just can’t keep up with anymore. Now, things are different, but you can still live with purpose. Perhaps it’s mentoring a younger person, writing letters or a memoir, volunteering at an organization you believe in, or dedicating your time and resources to help those in need. Think about the legacy you want to leave behind for those you love, and take small steps every day to leave a legacy of kindness, love, wisdom, and generosity. No matter your situation or limitations, you can find something to pour your passion into and ignite purpose in your life.

How to Support Someone Struggling with Mental Health

By Living Well

So many of us know someone who is struggling with their mental health. It can strike fathers, mothers, siblings, grandparents, friends, classmates, and co-workers. And oftentimes, the struggle is hidden from view and whispered over rather than treated with the compassion and care it deserves.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), approximately 1 in 5 U.S. adults experiences mental illness in a given year. That’s 46.6 million Americans. And each year, more than 8 million deaths worldwide are attributed to a mental illness, including many due to suicide or overdose. NAMI research also shows that 46% of people who die by suicide had a known mental health condition. These numbers tell us that millions of people worldwide struggle with mental health on a daily basis. The battle is real, and its reach is vast.

The question is: What can we do as individuals to help the people closest to us who are suffering from some form of mental illness live long and healthy lives? First, let’s go over the most common types of mental illness, and then we’ll discuss some practical ways you can help those around you who might suffer from a mental illness.

Five Categories of Mental Health Disorders

The term “mental illness” or “mental health disorder” refers to any disorder that affects mood, thinking, or behavior. The five major categories of mental illness are: anxiety disorders, mood disorders, schizophrenia and other psychoses, dementia, and eating disorders. Let’s take a closer look at each type.

Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorders affect approximately 40 million American adults. Typically, people suffering from an anxiety disorder experience distressing and frequent times of fear and apprehension. If not treated, the symptoms can worsen and begin to include panic attacks, physical symptoms, nightmares, and obsessive thoughts. Some common anxiety disorders are: panic disorder, OCD, PTSD, social anxiety disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder.

Mood Disorders

The two most common mood disorders are depression and bipolar affective disorder. Depression affects an estimated 300 million people worldwide and is characterized by loss of interest, sadness, feelings of guilt, low self-worth, difficulty falling asleep, exhaustion, and a lack of concentration. Depression can be long-lasting or recurring, leading to significant interference with a person’s ability to function on a daily basis.

Bipolar disorder, on the other hand, is marked by mood swings from extreme highs (elevated mood, hyperactivity, inflated self-esteem) to extreme lows (depression, sadness, hopelessness, lethargy), occasionally with a stabilized mood in between. Affecting more than 60 million people worldwide, the cause of bipolar affective disorder is not entirely known.

Schizophrenia and Other Psychoses

Psychoses, including schizophrenia, are a much more severe form of mental illness and impact about 23 million people worldwide. Pychosis disorders are characterized by distortions in thinking, perception, emotions, sense of self, and behavior. Often, people suffering from psychosis experience hallucinations, making normal life difficult. There is a strong stigma associated with type of mental illness, so many people don’t get the medical help and social support they need to heal.

Dementia

Though we don’t always group it with the others, dementia is a form of mental illness. It is generally chronic or progressive and often refers to the deterioration of memory, comprehension, calculation, and language, as well as emotional and social control. Dementia is caused by a variety of diseases that impact the brain, and while we don’t currently have a cure, there are treatments available to ease the confusion of the sufferer.

Eating Disorders

For many, eating disorders can be a life-threatening condition if left untreated. While there are many variations, they all involve obsessive behavior around food, weight, and body image. Usually, the behavior starts out relatively harmless but can escalate to the point where the body is unhealthy, causing damage that can lead to an early death. The three most common types of eating disorders are: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder.

Now that we have a better understanding of mental health disorders and what illnesses fall into them, let’s talk about how you can support those around you who are struggling with one or more of these health problems.

Eight Simple but Practical Support Tips

First, let’s acknowledge that relationships are hard, and when one person in the relationship is dealing with a mental health condition, it’s often harder to maintain a good relationship and positive interactions. So, when talking to friends or family who are dealing with mental health problems, try to focus on the opportunity to learn and provide support. The more you talk to others about a mental health issue they are dealing with, the more you can recognize symptoms and offer greater understanding and compassion.

1. Educate Yourself and Others Who Want to Learn

Even though you may not experience a mental health disorder yourself, you can seek to understand what others are dealing with. By getting to the truth of the difficulties of a particular mental health disorder, you can offer a greater degree of compassion and even locate mental health resources in your area that may provide treatment and medical care. The more you learn, the better. And if you can share what you’ve learned with others, more and more people will feel empowered to support their friends and loved ones who are dealing with mental illness.

2. Listen to Understand

So often, we only listen half-heartedly. While we hear the words, we are actually formulating our own response. When we do this, the other person often feels like you aren’t hearing them or trying to understand. When talking to a person who is struggling with a mental health issue, listen carefully. You don’t have to agree with them – the point is to understand how they feel and respect their feelings. It’s not a debate; it’s simply a dialogue. Build trust and rapport. Treat them with kindness and let them share as little or as much as they want. It’s not about fixing them – it’s making them feel heard.

3. Let Them Share Without Fear of Judgment

Being open and vulnerable with others is hard, especially if the trust between people isn’t strong. In order to support someone struggling with their mental health, you need to create a safe space for them. Don’t try to diagnose them or question their feelings. Ask them open-ended questions so that you encourage a full response rather than a simple “yes” or “no.” Look for common ground, and if you find yourself feeling defensive, gracefully end the conversation until you can talk in a calm, compassionate way. The more they trust you, the more they will open up and let you support them.

4. Avoid Belittling Their Experience or Alienating Them

Sometimes, we simply don’t think before we speak, and usually, that’s when we hurt our relationships with others. Careless words cut deep. So, make sure that you don’t blame them or raise your voice. Allow them to speak. Don’t make the conversation about you and your struggles – focus on them. Avoid sarcasm, condescension, or jokes about their condition. Instead, offer kindness and compassion.

5. Ask How You Can Help

While your friend or loved one may not know how you can help them, the act of asking the question lets them know that you want to be helpful and supportive. If they do give you ways to help them along the journey, only take on what you can handle. You’re only one person, and you may need to enlist others to help, particularly those who also love the mentally ill person. Also, don’t be afraid to ask the question more than once. As time goes on, needs may change, so it’s good to create a habit of asking how you can help every so often.

6. Encourage Self-Care

For anyone who is dealing with a physically, mentally, or emotionally distressing situation, self-care is especially important. Encourage your friend or loved one to exercise regularly, eat healthy foods, and do things that bring them joy and help reduce stress. The more they care for themselves and are aware of their current mood, the better.

7. Intentionally Include Them in Your Life

For those who are suffering from mental health disorders, being included can help them feel wanted and loved. If they say no, then they say no, but continue to invite them. There may be moments when the situation feels tense or uncertain, and that’s okay. Supporting someone through a mental illness is not easy, and you may find that you can only handle small doses of involvement. That’s okay, too. Help your loved one find a community of support, not just a person of support.

8. Know your Own Limits

As much as you may want to help, there are some things that are beyond you or that you just don’t have the emotional fuel to deal with. And that’s okay. It’s important to know when you are able to help and when you aren’t. When the person you love is dealing with psychosis or is feeling suicidal, get them to the hospital as soon as possible. The doctors there can help you understand which next steps to take.

Also, don’t be afraid to seek counseling yourself, either with a counselor or a support group. If you have been dealing with a loved one’s mental illness for a long period of time, lots of negative emotions can settle in, including stress, worry, anger, and anxiety. Having someone outside your family to talk to about the situation can give you some much-needed clarity, objectivity, and a safe place to deal with your own emotions. The healthier you are, the more effectively and compassionately you can enter into demanding situations.

Healthy Practices for Your Later Years: 60s

By Estate Planning, Living Well

You’re in your 60s now, and if you’re intentional, it’s going to be an amazing decade for you. Now’s the time to reinvent your lifestyle and make decisions about what the next 20-30 years are going to look like. Life may still be a bit hectic. You may be looking forward to retirement. Your adult children may have moved back in while they ground themselves. You may be caring for aging parents. You may want to travel or spend time with all the grandkids. No matter what your goals, you need healthy habits and practices to get you there.

Just remember that no matter what your lifestyle looked like before, it doesn’t have to stay that way. You can change your lifestyle to reflect your new goals in life. It just takes time and determination. How you age – whether well or poorly – is almost entirely up to you and the habits you cultivate. Now, let’s talk about 10 helpful and healthy practices you can cultivate in your 60s that will lead to better physical health, mental health, and aging well.

Kick Bad Habits

We all have bad habits, but it’s never too late to kick them to the curb. Some of the most common medical concerns – obesity, diabetes, and some forms of cancer – are directly related to lifestyle choices. So, take steps to quit the habits that may be hurting your body.

For example, quit smoking, lose excess weight, drink alcohol in moderation, increase your activity levels, and reduce your sugar intake. In addition to these, you may have a few more bad habits you’d like to leave behind. Write a list of your new goals and make a realistic and actionable plan for how to accomplish them.

Exercise Regularly

As you grow older, focus on strength training, aerobic exercise, and flexibility. Building up your muscles will help you maintain strength, increase bone density, and boost energy levels. If you use weights or resistance bands, start with lighter weights and work your way up. Weight-bearing exercise will help to increase bone density and keep you active longer into your later years. Adding in aerobic exercise – anything that gets your heart rate up – will increase your heart health and help with weight management. And finally, flexibility works in tandem with your exercise regime and is vital to developing strong muscles and bones.

To begin, find an activity you like and stick with it. Invite a friend to join you. Yoga, swimming, golf, and walking are all great ways to stay strong and active. Experts say to get at least 30 minutes of physical activity on most days of the week. If needed, you can break the time up – two 15-minute sessions or three 10-minute sessions. Whatever works best with your schedule and lifestyle.

Eat Healthy & Hydrate Often

Of course, we all know that what we put in our bodies has a huge impact on how well our bodies function. So, consider adding more fruits and vegetables, fiber-rich whole grains, lean meats and proteins (e.g. chicken, fish, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and good fats (e.g. avocado, cheese, dark chocolate, whole eggs). Then, as much as you can, avoid eating too many sugary and processed foods.

As for hydration, did you know that as we age, we begin to lose our sense of thirst? That’s why so many older people suffer from undetected dehydration. Be intentional about drinking water, even if you think you don’t need it. The water will hydrate you, increase your metabolic rate, and keep you from feeling as fatigued after exercise.

Get Regular Check-ups, Screenings, and Diagnostic Checks

While regular check-ups, preventative screenings, and diagnostic tests may not sound like much fun, wouldn’t you rather know if there’s an issue so you can take steps to correct it? Visit with your doctor and discuss which screenings they recommend to keep your body healthy and strong.

And don’t be afraid to ask questions – research shows that patients who don’t ask questions or don’t understand their medical condition or prescriptions are at increased risk for complications. So, make sure you fully understand what’s going on with your health.

Pay Attention to Your Bone Density

Our bones are incredibly important to overall health. Bone mass builds rapidly until the age of about 25, and then, without proper care, our bones begin to grow weaker over time. This is one reason why older people are more likely to develop osteoporosis or to fall and break or fracture bones. In fact, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, 1 in 2 women and 1 in 4 men will suffer from a fracture due to osteoporosis.

But it’s not too late. You can build up your bones even now. Make sure to get enough calcium and vitamin D but also exercise. Both strength training and weight bearing, like jumping or marching, can help to improve bone density and decrease the risk of osteoporosis.

Keep Your Brain Healthy

You may be approaching retirement and looking forward to taking it easy. Enjoy your time – you’ve earned it. Just remember to keep your brain supplied with new challenges. As we age, our brains produce less serotonin (mood), acetylcholine (memory, learning, and concentration), and dopamine (movement, motivation, and learning). This means that we need to keep the brain active to keep it healthy. Don’t just sit on the couch, catching up on the last 30 years of TV shows. Instead, keep your brain healthy by taking courses, learning new things, or adding to your skillset.

Cultivate a Positive Attitude

In a culture that glorifies youth, it isn’t easy to accept aging. But time marches on for us all, and to age well, it’s best to accept it and make the most of it. In fact, according to research, you can add up to 7.5 years to your life just by cultivating a positive attitude about aging. Additionally, adults with a positive attitude toward aging are less likely to develop dementia. Adults who carry a gene that poses the strongest risk for dementia are 50% less likely to develop dementia. That’s huge! It goes to show the power of perception and positivity to our bodies and minds.

Don’t Waste Your Time

Whether or not you’ve hit retirement yet, be intentional with your time. But especially after retirement, many of us are more likely to become sedentary. In fact, the average retired person spends over 4 hours a day watching TV. That’s time that might be better spent doing things that are healthy for your brain and body. Exercise, socialize, volunteer, cook new things, travel, explore your creativity, or all of the above. Those things that you said you’d do once you had time – do them! Seek meaningful activities and relationships. You won’t regret it.

Maintain a Social Life

We all need relationships. Interacting with those we like boosts our overall health because they help us manage our emotions, reduce our stress, and hold us accountable for maintaining good habits. Perhaps you feel that you have less energy now that you’re a little older, but still, take time to be with others. But make sure that those you spend time with actually add value to your life. If there are people in your life who just drain you, limit your interactions with them and focus on the relationships that bring joy. For your own well-being, you may need to forgive those who have hurt you in the past, but that doesn’t mean they have to be a part of your normal social circle.

Get Your Affairs in Order Now

Getting your affairs in order can seem like a daunting task. Maybe you’ve considered organizing all the necessary documents and making all the right calls, but you just aren’t quite sure where to begin. Now is a great time to start. Have you written a legal will so your family knows how you would like to disburse your assets? Have you considered preplanning your funeral, so you can save money and provide your loved ones with a plan? Have you talked to your family or doctor about advance care directives, so they know what kind of medical care you want? All of these are important questions to answer and best done when you are still healthy. Now is a great time to start putting your affairs in order so that you can live with greater peace of mind for years to come.

Sleeping Tips for the Grieving

By Grief/Loss, Living Well

The best bridge between despair and hope is a good night’s sleep.”  – E. Joseph Cossman

Sleep is essential for human beings. Without it, our minds and bodies quickly begin to show the negative effects of sleeplessness. Times of grief are especially difficult. The word “bereaved” means “to be torn apart,” which is an appropriate description for how we feel internally when we lose someone we love. Because grief is a struggle, we must take care of our bodies to ensure that we have the energy for the coming grief journey.

Dr. Alan Wolfelt, a nationally respected grief expert, counselor, and author, puts it this way: “Good self-care is important at this time. Your body is the house you live in. Just as your house requires care and maintenance to protect you from the outside elements, your body requires that you honor it and treat it with respect. The quality of your life ahead depends on how you take care of your body today. The ‘lethargy of grief’ you are probably experiencing is a natural mechanism intended to slow you down and encourage you to care for your body.”

Grief is Hard on the Body

Grief doesn’t just affect our minds or our emotions; it takes a toll on our bodies. Physical symptoms differ from person to person, but one of the most common physical experience is a disruption to sleep habits. This may mean that you have trouble falling asleep or that you fall asleep easily enough but wake up in the middle of the night and then can’t get back to sleep.

Just like we need sleep when recovering from illness, we need sleep when recovering from the physical and emotional strain associated with losing someone we love. A few reasons why you might experience difficulty sleeping while you are grieving:

  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Stress, worries, anxiety
  • Bad dreams or anxiety about having bad dreams
  • Trouble sleeping in the bed (for those who have lost a partner)
  • Other disorders like depression, insomnia, or PTSD

Oftentimes, questions plague us. Could I have done more? What if we’d sought treatment sooner? Should I have seen that this was going to happen? What comes next? How am I going to work and take care of my family? And so on.

The Importance of Sleep

If you are grieving, and you don’t get enough rest, then it’s even harder to deal with the complicated feelings associated with grief. You may be more easily overwhelmed, feel more irritated, get angry more quickly, become hostile or depressed, feel hungrier than is usual, and generally feel less friendly. On top of that, your immune response is weaker, which leaves you more susceptible to illness.

So, what happens when you don’t get the recommended 7-8 hours of sleep each day?

The science is a bit staggering and alarming. According to research, long-term sleeplessness can lead to accelerated aging, decreased bone density, and an increased risk of stroke, obesity, heart disease, and cancer. Sleep is incredibly important to our overall health and well-being in addition to being essential to healthy grieving.

Now that you know, what’s next?

6 Tried & True Tips

Create the ideal sleeping environment

Our bodies and minds need time to unwind before we can fall into a deep, restful sleep. The ideal environment is going to vary from person to person, but a few tips from the experts are:

  • Block out as much light as possible (use an eye mask, if necessary)
  • Leave your phone in another room and refrain from using it for at least 60 minutes before sleep
  • Keep the room cool (60-68 degrees) – we sleep better at cooler temperatures
  • Consider adding a white noise device (to block out sudden changes in sound or city noises)
  • Make sure your bed is comfortable – good mattress, pillows, blankets, etc.
  • Avoid doing anything stimulating, frustrating, or anxiety-inducing just before bed (or in your bedroom in general; you want the bedroom to be associated with peace and rest)
  • If you have lost your partner, you might rearrange your room, get a new bed, sleep in a different room, or get a body pillow to help with sleeping

Set a nighttime routine

Grief throws our lives and routines off balance, which is why we need to re-establish them to help with our rest. Routines give us a sense of peace and calm. We know what’s coming, and we enjoy the comfort of regularity. So, determine what the best routine is for you. Perhaps you dim the lights an hour before bed, read, snuggle with a furry friend, journal, or listen to soothing music. Find what best fits you but make sure that it is a relaxing, non-stimulating activity.

Stick to a regular sleeping and waking time. And if you haven’t fallen asleep after 20 minutes or so, get up. Read, meditate, work a puzzle – choose a relaxing activity. You could even practice breathing exercises to calm your mind and lull you to sleep. However, make sure you don’t turn on the tv or look at your phone. Research shows that the artificial light from screens actually reduces your melatonin production, which then affects your sleep.

Avoid caffeine and alcohol in the evening

We all know that caffeine is a stimulant, and if you’re trying to sleep, it’s best not to have it in your system. It takes 3-5 hours for your body to eliminate just half of the caffeine you consumed. One study even found that consuming caffeine within six hours of bedtime reduces your total rest time by one full hour.

And alcohol, while it does help you relax, actually suppresses melatonin, a key component to restful sleep. Research shows that drinking a moderate amount of alcohol an hour before sleeping will reduce melatonin production by almost 20 percent. To read more about the negative effects of alcohol on sleep, click here.

Avoid naps as much as possible

If you are already having trouble sleeping, a nap can really throw things off and mess up your established routine. Instead, stay awake until a decent hour and then fall into bed. Think of it like jet lag. When you are jet-lagged, you stay awake as long as you can so that the next morning, you can rise with the correct time zone. In some cases, especially early on in the grief journey, it’s important to take naps, but when the naps begin to interfere with your nightly rest, change is needed.

Engage in some form of exercise

Did you know that regular exercise improves sleep? The research shows that it does. Exercise reduces stress and improves mood, which is important while you are grieving. Studies have even found that daytime physical activity may trigger a longer period of slow-wave sleep, which is considered the deepest and most restorative stage.

If you already participated in a regular exercise routine before the death of your loved one, try to continue. If you did not practice a lifestyle of exercise, start out small. Take a walk, ride a bike, or pick up some small hand weights. Even moderate daily exercise can help you sleep better and improve your outlook on life.

Don’t be afraid to get help

Perhaps you’ve already tried all of these tips, and nothing has worked. Don’t be afraid to make an appointment with your doctor. They may have other resources available to you that will help. Deep, restful sleep is critical to rejuvenating your body throughout the grief process. But in addition to that, sleep is necessary for you to live a healthy life, physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Walking a Child Through a Funeral: 9 Tips for Parents

By Explore Options, Living Well

Most of us dearly love our children and want to protect them from the difficult parts of life. But understanding that a funeral is a rite of passage and an important part of the grieving process is an important lesson to learn. Whether or not your child attends a funeral is entirely up to you. For many children, attending a funeral actually helps them move forward in their own grief process. However, as Dr. Kenneth Doka states, “One of the questions oft asked is whether, or at what age, children should attend funerals. The truth is that I am not the person to ask – ask the child!

It’s important to determine whether your child is ready and to give them a choice. Forcing them to attend is usually not very successful, but you also don’t want to assume they wouldn’t want to go. Just like adults, children need an opportunity to say goodbye, so giving them a choice and preparing them ahead of time are important factors to consider.

The Funeral’s Purpose

Before making a decision, explain what a funeral is to your child. Having never attended one, they won’t know its purpose. Use simple, but truthful, answers. For example, “Remember I told you that Nana died? The funeral is a time for everyone – all of her friends and family – to sit and talk together and to remember her and share stories about her. All of us miss her, and at the funeral, we talk about what we liked about her and what we will miss about her. What do you remember about Nana? What will you miss about her?

Breaking it down helps your child get an idea of what the funeral is so they can make an informed decision about whether to go or not. Don’t go into too much detail – keep it age appropriate and strive to use words that won’t scare them.

9 Tips for Helping Kids Through a Funeral

If your child decides to attend the funeral, it’s important to make sure they have the support they need. Remember, this is a completely new experience for them. Just as you sought to make the first day of school as easy and seamless as possible, do the same for a funeral. Talk through it and help them know what to expect.

Prepare them in advance

Just as adults feel more comfortable and better prepared when they know what to expect with a new experience, children do, too. Go through the process step by step. Discuss what your child will see (pews, religious symbols, flowers, casket, urn, the body of the deceased, black clothing, etc.). You don’t have to talk about everything at once – do it in small doses. The point is to put any anxiety to rest and prepare your child for a new experience. For more help with discussion topics, click here.

Explain what death is

Our natural desire is to protect our children from what we think could be harmful. Death is something each of us must come to understand, and it’s best for your child that the information come from you, their parent. Take your child’s age and maturity into account before having the discussion. Young children (under age 7) will understand basic concepts while an older child is able to understand more complexities. But in general, help them understand the physical aspect of death – the person’s body doesn’t work anymore, and they no longer need it. Depending on your spiritual beliefs, you can talk about what happens to the person’s soul after death. Be clear and simple, using the words dead and died. It’s better not to use euphemisms – your child needs to understand the reality. They will learn societal nuances later.

Let them know that their feelings are okay

Explain to your child that they will see a wide variety of emotions at the funeral. Many people will be sad, and that’s okay. It’s natural to be sad after someone dies. People may be quiet at the funeral service but laugh and tell stories at the reception or gathering. Make it clear to your child that their feelings are okay. If they want to cry, that’s fine. If they don’t, that’s fine, too.

Be attentive to their needs

Pay attention to their reactions and ask how they are feeling. While it’s important to let children learn how to process difficult events, it’s also good to give them the ability to escape. You (or a designated friend or relative) can take them outside or into the hallway for a quick break if the funeral or memorial service becomes overwhelming for them. Be attentive but let them go at their own pace. They may surprise you with how well they handle everything.

Ask if they want to remember the person in a special way

Depending on the relationship and your child’s temperament, it may be appropriate to ask if there’s a special way they want to honor the one who has died. Perhaps they might wear a certain color (the loved one’s favorite), tell a story, draw a picture to share or bury with the person, or bring an item that the loved one gave to them (like a toy, blanket, or article of clothing). Just as it’s important for us as adults to find special ways to honor the lives of those we love, it’s important for children.

Answer their questions

Answer their questions as best you can, honestly and without shaming them. By asking questions, they are processing the death and what it means. The questions will range from simple to more complex. Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know” or “Let’s find out.” This helps them know that you also don’t know all the answers, and you can learn and process together.

Don’t force anything on them

While we all strive to teach our children obedience and how to follow our household rules, it’s best not to force things on a child at a funeral. This applies to many things. Don’t force them to go up to the casket to view the body or to touch the body. Don’t make them feel that they must share stories at the gathering or reception. Instead, ask them. Give them the opportunity to participate and the grace to stand back and observe.

Discuss your own feelings

Funerals bring out a wide variety of feelings: sadness, anger, relief, shock. Even for adults, emotions are difficult, so as children identify them and learn about them, it’s important that they have a role model: you. Tell them how you feel about the person who has died. Assure them that your and their feelings are normal and natural. By watching you in your grief, they learn how to handle their own.

Debrief with them

After the funeral, over the next days and weeks, ask your child questions about their experience. Check in to see how they are feeling and if they need to talk through anything they witnessed or didn’t understand. Encourage them to share how they are feeling. Let them know that you care about them and their feelings and are there for them, no matter what.

Ultimately, it’s about preparing them and guiding them through the hard things in life, so they can deal with them on their own in a healthy way.

For more in-depth information on topics to discuss with your children before the funeral, make sure to read 7 Key Topics to Discuss with Children Before a Funeral.

7 Key Topics to Discuss with Children Before a Funeral

By Grief/Loss, Living Well

The funeral, a ritual that has been with us since the beginning of time, is here to help us embrace the life that was lived and support each other as we go forward.  As caring adults, we will serve our children well to introduce them to the value of coming together when someone we love dies.” – Dr. Alan Wolfelt

If your child is attending a funeral for the first time, you may feel a little bit like you’re on pins and needles. While you don’t quite know how they are going to respond, it’s best to prepare them ahead of time. As human beings, we naturally find a measure of comfort in knowing what to expect. This is true for children as well as adults. Just as we prepare our children for the first day of school, for a big move, or for the coming of a new sibling, we must also take the time to prepare them for a funeral.

Your child learns their patterns of behavior from you. The way your child initially views funerals will depend on you and your explanations. By discussing important topics in advance, you can prepare your child and help calm any anxieties.

7 Key Topics to Discuss

1. Discuss what they will see

Your child may feel a bit anxious at first, so try to give them as accurate a picture as possible. Look up the funeral location on the internet and show them what the venue looks like. Will there be a casket or urn? Flower sprays? Show your child pictures and explain the purpose of these items.

Also, depending on the beliefs and values of the person who has died, funeral ceremonies may differ. The funeral of a Catholic person will look different than that of a practicing Jew or an agnostic. You may not always be familiar with some aspects of the ceremony, but if you do know what prayers or rituals to expect, discuss their meaning and purpose with your child.

2. Talk about the emotions they may see in others 

Your child is no stranger to emotion – they feel things every day – but they are probably not used to seeing adults expressing sadness or crying. So, explain to your children that funerals typically elicit emotion. In fact, it’s part of their purpose – to give people an opportunity to publicly mourn (outwardly express) the loss they feel. In the eyes of society, the funeral is an acceptable place to express yourself emotionally. As a result, people display different emotions. Tell your child that they may see some people crying because it’s sad when someone you love dies. They may see other people who don’t look sad, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t. We all show our emotions in different ways.

3. Assure them that their own emotions are normal

Every child will respond differently when confronted with loss. Some are more likely to cry while others seem unfazed. However, it’s important that a child knows that whatever they feel at the funeral is normal. If a child had a close and intimate relationship (as is the case with a parent or sibling) with the person who has died, they may need to cry themselves. Let your child know that this is okay, and it’s good for them to cry if they feel sad. Don’t try to prevent them from expressing their grief. Instead, allow them to feel what they feel. In the long run, it’s better to allow a grieving child time and space to grieve than to make them think their feelings aren’t acceptable or normal.

4. Explain what death is

Naturally, we want to protect our children from what we think could be harmful. However, having an understanding of death is not harmful; it’s necessary (as much as we might wish it wasn’t). In most cases, a child trusts their parent(s) more than any other adult, which is why this information should come from you. Before having a discussion about death, it’s important to take your child’s maturity level into account. Consider how they’ve responded to the death of a pet or an insect or how they respond to stressful situations.

In general, help your child understand the physical aspect of death – the person’s body doesn’t work anymore, and they no longer need it. Depending on your spiritual beliefs, discuss what happens to the person’s soul after death. Be simple, concise, and clear. Don’t be afraid to use the words dead and died. In fact, it’s better not to use euphemisms. For children, euphemisms can be confusing, so tell it like it is in gentle terms.

5. Explain burial & cremation

While your child may have many questions, the most important thing to emphasize is that because the person is dead, they don’t feel pain. When explaining what a casket is, you can also talk about burial. Again, use simple but clear language. Talk about how a hole is dug in the ground, and then the casket (with the body inside) is placed in the hole. Then, everything is covered again by dirt. Your child may ask why this must be done. In whatever words you think best, explain that after a person dies, we must take care of the body with respect and care.

As for cremation, again, make sure they understand that the person feels no pain. As you discuss urns, you can also discuss cremation, how it works, and that the body becomes cremated remains (ashes) after the process is finished. The words you use should depend on the age and personality of your child.

6. Prepare them for seeing a dead person

Seeing a dead person for the first time is often difficult. If you and your child are planning to attend an event where the body will be present, let your child know in advance. Talk with your child about how the dead person will look. You could say they will look like they are sleeping but their chest won’t move because they aren’t breathing. If your child expresses a desire to touch the body, let them know that the person may be cold or hard. Above all, don’t force your child to view or touch the body. You must give them a choice. Some children will want to say goodbye or express love through touch in this way. Just remember, forcing a child to do something they aren’t ready for can do more harm than good.

7. Teach them about funeral etiquette

Every aspect of the funeral will be new to your child, which is why it’s important to discuss funeral etiquette. By doing this, you will also alleviate any fears they may have and help them feel more comfortable. Discuss why we typically wear dark clothing – to symbolize our grief and sadness. Make it clear that they must be respectful in their behavior during any services they attend. You know your child’s behavior tendencies – specifically call attention to what they should not do.

Keep in mind, children are children, and there will likely be a few mishaps, especially if they are under preschool age. If their behavior is distracting to others or begins to disrupt the people around them, you may have to remove them from the service for a quick break. Explain that we need to be considerate of others and that this is a very important time for many people who loved the person who died. You may also offer your child a quiet activity to keep them occupied during the service, such as a coloring book.

Answer Their Questions

Now that you’ve worked hard to prepare your child, it’s time to answer their questions. Answer as best you can. Be honest and straightforward. Let your child’s questions and natural curiosity guide the discussion. They aren’t looking for euphemisms – they are looking for information. As they ask questions, they are processing the death and what it means.

Some questions you may hear:

  • Why do people die?
  • When do people die?
  • Is death forever?
  • Where do you go when you die?
  • Can I still call them?
  • What happened to him/her (the person who died)?
  • Did it hurt?
  • Am I going to die?
  • Are you going to die?
  • Why do we put them in the ground (if it’s a burial)?
  • Are you sure it doesn’t hurt (referring to cremation)?
  • What if I want to talk to them?

Ask If They Want to Participate

According to Dr. Alan Wolfelt, respected author, educator, and grief counselor, participating in actions after the death of a loved one helps us give expression to our grief. He says, “Mourners often don’t know what to do with their grief…. Funerals are made up of a number of ritualistic physical actions, all of which give mourners a way to literally move through the funeral process (and thus through this difficult time of their grief).”

For children, especially those who have lost someone significant in their lives, you might consider inviting them to light a candle in remembrance at the funeral ceremony. You could purchase two identical stuffed animals, placing one with the person who had died and giving one to the child. Thereafter, if the child wants to feel close to the person who is gone, they can hug the stuffed animal close. You could ask if the child wants to draw a picture to place in the casket. If not a picture, some other item. By inviting children to participate, you validate their grief and show them that they, too, are important.

For more helpful information about children and funerals, take a moment to read Life Lessons Children Can Learn at Funerals.

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