With the news last week of the helicopter crash that claimed the lives of nine people, including basketball star Kobe Bryant and his daughter, it has been a time of sadness and questions for many.
When death happens unexpectedly and to people that we are not prepared to lose, it fills us with fear and pain. It also makes it hard to explain, not only to ourselves but also to our children. It is a difficult and an emotional process. We are afraid that in talking about death, we will create fear, anxiety and sadness in a way that will damage the children.
Although I have learned much as a professional about talking to children about difficult subjects, including death, my own experiences of loss have taught me the most valuable lessons.
Loss in my own childhood
When I was 7 years old, my grandfather was killed in a car accident. I remember my parents bringing my brother, sister and me into the living room and explaining in a calm voice that something sad had happened. They said that our grandparents had been on a trip with their friends, that they had been in an accident with another car, and that my grandfather had been killed. I remember feeling sad and confused. I also remember my parents talking about how much my grandfather loved us and how good it was that we had seen him recently and enjoyed dinner with him. My parents comforted us and reassured us that everything would be okay, even though this was a difficult time.
Explaining loss to my own children
I think about my own experience as an adult when my stepfather was dying of cancer. My two young daughters were three and one. I had waited to tell my oldest. My mother and I reached out to a child psychologist and did quite a bit of reading in order to know exactly what to say. The conversation went something like this:
“I have something to tell you that is sad. I want you to know that Grandpa Fred is sick, and he is not going to be able to get well. He is going to die. When someone dies, it means that their body stops working; they don’t need to sleep, eat, drink or anything else, but they also don’t feel pain anymore. We are going to be OK, and Grammy is going to be OK. Even though we will be sad, we will be OK.”
When I told my 3-year-old that, she simply said, “OK, ”and then for the next two weeks, she told people where ever we went, “My grandpa Fred is dying, and we are very sad.” At first, it surprised me. Then I realized that this was the best thing my daughter could do. She was expressing her loss, and when people heard that, they would say how sorry they were, and she would thank them. Grieving is a very individual thing. But even at three years of age, she was doing what came natural to her.
Before we went to the funeral home, she saw him in his casket and looked at him in his suit and wanted to check out his feet. It is common in children to want to see the feet, so we made sure he had on shoes in the casket. We said “Goodbye” and hugged him. I talked about it with my daughter, and she decided that we would put some Pocahontas stickers (that was a favorite movie of hers at the time) in his pocket, so he would have something from us and know how much we loved him. Because when you are three, Pocahontas stickers are a very good way to express your love.
Best practices for talking with children about death
- Prepare them. “Something sad has happened, and we need to tell you about it.” (Using words like “awful or terrible” are not helpful.)
- Be calm even if you are sad too.
- Reassure them that they/you will be okay, even in in sadness.
- Talk about death as something that you can get through together. And as something that does happen and is not the end of the world, although it may be difficult.
- Give them the opportunity to express their feelings in whatever way they want, even if that means going to play, instead of being sad. Some children will want to cry, some will want to express their sadness by drawing or giving a gift, some children will just want to play. All are perfectly normal reactions.
- Stay with basic simple details about what happened and do not try to explain too much.
- Do not explain death like going to sleep, as that often scares young children about sleeping. Instead explain it as the body stops working.
- Talk about heaven, if you believe in it. However, understand that the idea of going to heaven and how wonderful it is can also be confusing for children. If children ask what happens when someone dies, the truth is that different people believe different things. What you can say is that we believe that the body stops working, and our soul, that part of us that is who we are, goes to live with God or other beliefs you hold. Just be prepared to patiently answer follow-up questions.