This is a post that I shared two years ago.  Because the question is often Googled, I thought this could be a good time to review it.

Yesterday I received a phone call from an adult day program.  A family had called the workshop inquiring how they would tell their sibling who is mentally challenged that their mother had died.  When I realized that the developmentally disabled person was a member, I called the family.  We had a short talk regarding this dilemma.  Later in the day, on the Google search menu, there was the question again.  “How to explain a parent’s death to a mentally challenged person?”

Because several times I’ve been asked this question and it was come up about a dozen times in Google searches, I thought it would be a good thing to attempt to explain.  Of course, every family is different and you will need to use your own good judgment.  What I tell you may not be right for you and your situation.

I am not a grief counselor and I don’t claim to be.  However, in the years I’ve worked with this population, I’ve seen some things that seem to work and some things that only prolong the sorrow.  There are several suggestions that I’ve heard that I believe are not the correct way to handle the situation.  Perhaps the most egregious way would be to ignore the event or remove the mentally challenged person from the home during this grieving time without allowing them to grieve also.

Many years ago, Shiela’s mother died.  She had been in the hospital for months.  The entire family came for her last hours.  A well-meaning friend told the siblings and father, “Don’t tell Shiela.  She will never know.  Let someone else keep her during the funeral.  Don’t upset her by letting her know what is happening.”

The day of the funeral I received a call for the workshop and I was asked to visit Shiela.  She was sitting in the corner by herself.  I went up to her and found her crying.  I pulled up a chair next to hers.  Understanding the family’s wishes, I knew I had to tread carefully and watch what I said, “What’s wrong?” I asked.

“My mother died.  The whole family is at my house and I’m not there,” she told me.  “I want to be with my family.”

For about an hour, we walked and talked together.  Not wanting to break the confidence of the family, I said nothing, only listened.  Though a lower functioning individual, Shiela knew and understood exactly what was happening.  She was confused and hurt that her family had excluded her from the sorrow of her mother’s death and the comforting joy of being with the whole family during this time of hurt and pain.  My coming and allowing her to share her sorrow brought a great deal of release for her.

Another suggestion given to a family was:  Take George to the funeral home.  Show him his mother and tell him that she is sleeping and she won’t ever wake up.  In my opinion, this could be a traumatic thing to tell any person.  Can you imagine how frightening that would be to a person with a limited understanding?  He or she would never want to go to sleep again for fear that s/he may not ever wake up.

Again, I’m not an expert in these matters.  However, I believe that a simple and direct explanation of what has happened could be the most beneficial and healing method.  If the mother was a Christian, you could say something like this, “Sally, you know your mother was very sick.  Last night at 10:30pm, she died. (Giving a date and time can give Sally some concrete evidence to mark the event.)  The Lord always knows what is best for all of us and He knew it was the right time for her to die.

“You will be very sad for a long time and that is all right.  But remember we aren’t to be sad for your mother.  She is in heaven with Jesus.  She is well and not hurting any more.  She is happy and she wants you to be happy too.  Yes, you are going to miss her.”

Then remind Sally of some silly thing that her mother did.  Encourage her to smile and even laugh.  This will give Sally permission to find joyful expressions during this sad time.  This will say to her, “We are all sad but we can still laugh and be happy.”

Don’t stop an appropriate amount of tears.  Crying can be the best thing Sally can do at this time.  Tears may not come immediately.  You may need to give Sally permission to cry.  “It’s all right for you to cry.  I’ve been crying because I’m sad.  You will cry too.  That is all right.  Your mother and Jesus will understand that you are hurting and lonely without her.”

Keep the words and explanation simple and clear.  If there are questions, answer them simply and clearly.  Remember she or he may intuitively understand more than you realize.  Give him or her the opportunity to freely express emotion and ask questions that are meaningful to him/her.

Dealing with grief is always a tricky situation.  Remember:

  1. Some families are expressive.
  2. Others find help in remaining strong and stoic.
  3. Your situation will be unique.
  4. The reaction of your family member will also be unique and very personal.
  5. Pray that God will give you wisdom.
  6. Keep your words and explanation simple.
  7. Answer questions.
  8. Allow him or her to cry.
  9. Introduce an opportunity to laugh with the person about some personal memory that will bring  joy.