Grief Education
Children & Grief
Coping with Grief

About the Author--Karen Nilsen


from The STAR Class
by Karen Nilsen

Eighteen years ago a friend of mine called and asked me if I wanted to go out on a blind date. I asked her what this guy was like. “Well, he’s very nice. He’s cute, he goes to my church, he plays the guitar and he drives a really nice car.” So far it sounded like a safe, enjoyable date. “Oh, by the way,” she continued, “he’s a mortician.”

Instantly, I conjured up the image of a tall, lanky, dark, solemn figure with an angular jaw, wearing a black suit and a stove pipe hat. (I’m not sure where that came from!)

  STAR Class Creator Karen Nilsen

I agreed to the date on her recommendation and discovered that although he was tall and lanky, he did not resemble the conjuring in my mind. He was a fun, talented, sensitive, handsome, great guy. I promptly married him.

As you no doubt already know, the general public has preconceived ideas about funeral directors and what they do. Unless they have experienced a funeral, the public often views them and what they do with a little fear and trepidation.

In San Francisco, in August of 1999, I was in an elevator with a group from Minnesota at the Annual Leadership Conference. A rather large, jolly man bent forward to look at my husband’s name badge. “You here on business?” he asked. “Whoa! Ah- Funeral Directors, huh? Well- I’m not ready for you yet, thank God!” He stepped back and he and the rest of his party laughed nervously. We rode up to the 27th floor in silence.

Kids get most of their knowledge and beliefs from their parents, teachers and peers, as well as from TV shows and movies. Think about what is out there on the big screen- is it any wonder they and the general population are so misinformed and biased about death and funerals?

The days surrounding a death can be a confusing and disorienting time for young children. Altered daily routines and unfamiliar sights and sounds can be difficult for them to understand and cope with. Children notice even the most subtle changes in their routines and surroundings and before they can actually add, they can put two and two together and come up with three.

Although their three may be misconstrued. It takes a caring, concerned adult to take the time to find out what the child knows, what they think they know, and then to present the true facts in a simple, loving way.

Children need simple, honest, straightforward explanations about death. We can teach our children in the same non-threatening, caring way that we explain other milestones in their lives. We must validate their feelings and encourage them to share their thoughts, fears and observations of the events taking place around them.

Four years ago my Grandmother died at the age of 97. She was survived by nine grandchildren, twenty-one great-grandchildren and two great-great grandchildren. She had been a steady, positive influence in all our lives and she knew each of us and our children and grandchildren intimately.

I looked for a way to include the children in the funeral process and to give them the opportunity to be involved in the preparations for her funeral and burial. Books, pamphlets and brochures helped a little, but I wanted more. This experience got me thinking about how it seems that children are often times kept out on the fringes and some times, left out of the funeral experience completely.

So, I told them the story of my grandfather’s death (her husband) forty years before. I bought some plain cardboard picture frames for each child to decorate with markers, stickers and rubber stamps. We went through photo albums to find just the right picture for each child.

Then each one wrote a message to Grandma on a paper star to place in the casket. I asked the children what they thought of when they saw a star or heard the word ‘STAR’. They responded, “A movie star. A football star. A star in heaven.” I explained these stars stood for a Special Time to Always Remember ™. The STAR class was born.

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