Talking to Children about Death
My Father died when I was nine years old. Recently, I have been curious to speak to other people who had shared a similar experience. My research has been drawn from a conversation that I had with a children’s Grief Counsellor and 8 conversations I had with people who experienced a death while under the age of 12.
We have progressed a great deal in one generation as to how we communicate with children about death. We are increasingly understanding of the benefits of feeling our feelings and articulating them through language. The difficulty with communicating about death is that no one really knows what happens when we die. Young children look to their parents and adult figures to have the answers for everything, but not even Google has the answer to this!
The language we use to talk about death to children is of the utmost importance. Euphemisms such as, ‘lost,’ ‘passed away,’ ‘gone to sleep,’ ‘not coming back,’ are not appropriate ways to describe death to a child. Children take things very literally. The problem with saying ‘lost’ or ‘gone to sleep’ is that the child may hold out hope that the dead one may be found or will someday wake up from that sleep.
The premise to how you break the news is very important. Do not build it up. Say what has happened and get to the point. One of my interviewees told me that his Mother sat him down and started to break the news to him by saying ‘the worst possible thing you can possibly imagine has happened.’ His mother’s premise triggered his imagination to immediately guess who had died. His first thought was that his brother had died. His Mother replied, ‘no, your Father has died.’ In that moment, he had a sense of relief as he reasoned that his Father was getting old and therefore his father dying would mirror the more natural circle of life. A child’s imagination can go to a million places when reacting to a shocking, unclear message. And this kind of guess work can create guilt in the wake of coming up with the wrong answer
Just like adults, children do experience guilt. They question whether they could have done something to stop the death. Young children involuntarily feel the need to be adults and take responsibility. After the death of a parent, it will often follow that children grow up very quickly and take parental roles in the household. Most people that I interviewed said they had a strong degree of independence and a level of maturity that surpassed their peers.
Knowing what to say to a child or adult after someone dies is difficult. From my own personal experience, I still have a letter from a relative telling me ‘to be brave’ to help my Mother. Comments such as this reinforced my decision to remain stoic and block my emotions which later impacted my ability to feel my feelings. One of my interviewees explained to me how she ‘bottled up’ her feelings when her Father died suddenly when she was 7 years old. She said she did not want to upset her mother by crying. However, her sister 4 years her senior, was very outward with her emotions which enabled her to deal with the grief more effectively.
Myself and others did not find consolation in adults saying, ‘they are in a better place now’ or they are ‘in heaven.’ We were children left with feelings of abandonment and fear about how life will continue for us on the planet now that the stability of our family unit has imploded.
Helpful things to say are:
‘I am so sorry to hear about your Dad’s death. I cannot imagine how hard this must be.’
‘He was an awesome man; I often think of him.’
‘If you ever want to talk, I am here for you.’
Fear can run deeply within the consciousness of a child who has lost a parent. The grief counsellor I spoke to said that the most common fear is that the other parent will die and they will be left orphaned. Children may also start to fear their own death. A useful way of explaining death to children is to say, ‘most people die when they are very very very old, unless certain things happen to them that we cannot help, like being run over by a bus or they get an illness and sometimes we just don’t have the answers for these things.’
As one of my interviewees commented, ‘we are not always going to have closure in life. Life is not always going to be wrapped up in a bow. It is very unfair, but you keep going, that’s what you do.’ One of my Mother’s favourite sayings was, ‘life isn’t fair.’ Perhaps the sooner you learn that the quicker you start to grab life and make the most of it. Or do you? I believe for most people who have experienced death before at a young age, our outlook is going to be very different from those that have not experienced this even though it can be many years of confusion and pain before grief is properly processed.
My interviewees shared common feelings of being an outsider and not wanting people to pity them. One person said that he attended an all-boys school back in the UK and experienced being bullied for not having a Father. He rationalized how, ‘kids will always find a weak spot. I’ve never held it against them.’ Some people still brush off conversations with acquaintances about their parents. They avoid what could be deep and lengthy of conversations of sad circumstances that have been neatly parked somewhere in the back of their consciousness. And I can relate to that. There is a time and a place and depending on how raw and painful the topic may be, there are people that judge and pass comment on the children of broken homes or those that have tragic family circumstances.
Common residues of death experienced at a young age can later manifest in anxiety, addictive behaviors, self-harming, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and difficulty socialising and connecting with other children. Speaking with the children’s Grief Counsellor, she said the group experience is by far the most powerful healing experience because the children see that they are not different. They are with other children who are going through the same thing. Personally, I am a huge advocate of the group experience. There is so much healing in hearing that someone else suffers with the same paralysis and you are not alone in your crazy thoughts. I am a great believer that we are ‘all teachers for one another’ and sharing our experiences can help heal and inspire others.
It is possible that the memory of deceased parent can be somewhat hidden and photos or mementos could be missing. One interviewee regretted that he had not taken the time to talk to his Father’s friends before he died to find out more about the man he was to know for only a snippet of his life. This has inspired me to reach out to my Father’s friends, and write up the conversations I have with them about him in a scrapbook so that later I can share these with my nieces and nephew. Due to the pain so often associated with losing a loved one, the temptation is to not to feel the discomfort and put away the past.
And there is an upside of course! I love how with each and every conversation I have about death and grieving there is laughter and joy as we share about the saddest experiences of our lives. When I asked about the positive impacts, I received comments such as:
‘I grew up quickly, I became level headed, I am able to empathise and look at all angles.’
‘People say I have a good outlook on life. People call me Mama Hen at work. I tell people go and live your life, you don’t know when something will happen.’
‘I like who I am and I am grateful for today.’
‘I value my life enormously.’
‘Although it has been incredibly sad to have lost both parents at a young age, and I would certainly have preferred them to be alive today, I do sometimes console myself thinking, I will not have to nurse sick parents when I am older and also have children who are dependent on me as well.’
There was a common theme that in a sense there was freedom to be who we really wanted to be. There was not these external pressures of parents wanting you to be the imprint of their life. I loved this comment:
‘I had a sense of freedom, I’ve always felt gung-ho about life. What’s the worst that can happen? You have already combatted one of the worst things that could happen by having a parent die. You can go and attack life. You only have one parent telling you what to do. Only one parent to be disappointed in you!’
Those of us who had lost a parent, shared a sense of wanting to make them proud through work achievements or recreating family units. My heart warmed when I heard people share with me their sense of being guided, protected, having angels with them and a knowing that their loved ones were with them. However, not everyone felt this way and most people found that they they rejected formal religion. But many had found their own understanding of a higher power or consciousness.
One interviewee experienced 3 deaths before the age of 16. She witnessed two happen in her family home, one of which was very traumatic. She said this early sadness gave her a desire to make people laugh and regularly performs stand-up comedy. And we can. We can laugh in the face of life and death. When we worry about the minutia of life, like making our bed, worrying what other people think, freaking out about the size of our ass, when really, in the grand scheme of things, we can lay our worry to rest and enjoy the present moment, be grateful for the good and remember to laugh!
I realise that this piece of writing may have left you with extreme reactions. But this may be because everyone is different in their temperaments. Death can happen a multitude of ways and the handling of it can vary dramatically. When someone dies, we do what we can to cope, and everyone has their own way of dealing with it. I believe the most important thing is to be honest, to be transparent with children and offer them plenty of love and reassurance. Death is a part of life, as painful and awkward as that might feel. Like my Mum would say, ‘life isn’t fair.’ But when my Dad died, I did feel like I had a guardian angel with me all the time, and I still feel like that. I feel protected and guided, and that is why I believe, that ultimately we are never alone.
Our House Grief Charity http://www.ourhouse-grief.org
Children Grieve Too, Lauren Schneider http://amzn.to/1TAbN6P
I wish I had a Book to read, Randi Wolfson http://amzn.to/1ViM81K
Winstons Wish http://www.winstonswish.org.uk
Grief Encounter http://www.griefencounter.org.uk
Badgers Parting Gift http://amzn.to/1WPqCma
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