Bette J. Freedson
Once, sex was the big conversation that upped the anxiety for parents. It is still a big deal, but in today’s culture death has become the topic du jour. With medical miracles and modern technology, many kids are protected from the personal experience of death and dying until they are older. At the same time, if kids listen to the news, they regularly hear about people dying in terrorist attacks, wars, and random acts of unkindness.
In addition, parents like to protect kids from pain. When it comes to talking about death, the prevailing wisdom may be, "Oh, just let them be kids, there is time enough later for them to experience these difficulties." However, kids are smart, and they will ask questions. They might surprise you by asking, "What does 'die' mean, Daddy?" Or like my granddaughter did, they might ask, "Grammy, where is your grandmother?" They might even ask you about someone you have lost that you thought they did not even know had existed.
Recently a client of mine reported how his three-year old grandson reacted when told grandpa was going to a funeral. When grandpa answered, the "what-is-a-funeral" question by saying it was a ceremony for someone who died, the questions continued until the grandfather explained that the man had gotten very old and very sick and was no longer living. At this point the little one broke down into sobs. Later, he revealed his fear that his grandpa would die. At 65, it could happen, but grandpa reassured that he is healthy and taking good care of himself, and that he would likely be around for quite a bit more time.
To prepare you for questions, there are some common denominators to consider, whether you are talking about the concept of death or helping a child to work through an actual loss when a family member, pet, or friend, has died.
Five Tips for Talking About Death with Kids
1. Normalizing Dying.
Take children into a garden where they can observe the natural process of the seasons. Look at the blossoms that need to be "dead-headed," and show the child how to remove them. This provides an excellent opportunity to talk about death as part of the cycle of life.
Refrain from complex or mythical explanations. Base your information on the child’s age and development. This is a topic you will revisit at varying stages of your child’s development, as a general question and as a discussion in grief.
If the death has been a suicide, the most important information is that this was not your child’s fault. Even if this is obvious to you, it may not be to a child. Refrain from saying the person was "crazy." Because kids are concrete, and this has no comfort value for them.
2. Understand the normalcy and nature of emotions related to death.
Feelings not talked about do not disappear. If a child asks and the adult does not respond, the child may ruminate, causing feelings to surface later in behavior. Watch for signs of unresolved guilt, curiosity or stress in the children’s play or conversation. If someone close to the child has passed, the child may say something like, "I hate grandpa!" Anger is normal. Experience of death brings up a range of feelings for everyone, especially kids.
Refrain from giving explanations like, "Death is when you go to sleep forever," or, "Daddy has gone on a wonderful journey." Children are very concrete in the way they understand things. Mythical explanations can cause fears and confusion.
3. Tell the truth.
Truth enables kids to trust their adults. Just as when having the "other" conversation, tell the truth based on what the child can absorb, taking into consideration age, education level, and emotional make-up. Be alert to signs that you have said enough, and be alert to need for more.
Refrain from saying things like, "Your grandmother died because she was so good, she was wanted in heaven." This is a lovely adult belief, but too fantasy-filled for children. The child could become fearful of dying if she is told she must be a "good" girl. Refrain from deferring the death question by saying, "Go ask your father/mother/teacher," etc.
Refrain from making "heaven" sound too appealing. Although this belief may comfort you, it does not restore the loss for the child, or give an explanation that makes sense.
4. Be especially alert to guilt and fear related to a personal loss.
Especially if talking about a personal loss, children will have a range of emotions including guilt and fear. Support the child by reassuring that it is okay to have feelings, and they did not cause the death. Often kids feel that if they had been better behaved the parent/grandparent would not have died. Assure them that it is normal to feel whatever they are feeling.
(Because it is!)
5. Keep an open attitude about your own feelings.
Especially if there has been a death in the family or extended family, children will watch how you deal with your own emotions. It is okay to express them. Refrain, however, from using kids as adult supports. They are unable to process all the nuances of emotions and issues that emerge when a close person dies. Treating children, even adolescents, as peers will create confusion for them. Refrain from substituting them for the departed adult if it is the other parent. Refrain from using children as your relief valves if the loss is a shared one. Find and use other adult supports, including professional help if you are unable to recover from your own grief.
A few suggestions and ideas for responses:
Death is a normal part of life.
Yes, eventually everyone dies, but it is likely going to be a very long time before your parent dies or you die.
You are in good health and should live for many, many years.
When a person gets very old, and/or very sick, the body cannot work anymore. If you get sick, I will take you to the doctor and the doctor is going to help make you better.
You did not make (the person) die. You did nothing wrong.
It’s okay to say, "I do not know," or "No one really knows."
When linking dying to God or heaven, be sure to reassure with something like, "This is what we believe."
It’s okay to miss the person.
It’s okay to be sad, to cry.
“Talking About Death/A Dialogue between Parent and Child", by Earl A. Grolllman, Beacon Press, Boston.
“Learning To Say Good-by/When A Child’s Parent Dies”, by Eda LeShan, Avon Books, New York.