Researchers report that one in six children has lost a parent by the time they are 18, and 9 out of 10 have lost a close family member or friend. One of the biggest mistakes adults make is not talking to children about it. Children are acutely aware of the emotional life of their families and need special attention to help them grieve. It’s important to consider their age and developmental level. This article is about how to explain death to children and how to help them cope with the death of someone close. It is for parents, of course, but educators are also on the front lines. A British organization that serves people who are grieving, offers an interesting list of tips from children and young adults who have been bereaved.
Most children don’t fully accept the fact that death is irreversible until they are around 10, though by age 5 or 6 they’ll concede that it is inevitable. For me, these facts took on new meaning this year after doctors diagnosed my 47-year-old son-in-law, Don, with terminal brain cancer. When it came time to tell the children, we felt at a loss about what to say. Lily, age 10, and Emmy, age 6, are my daughter’s children (with Don). Kaiya, 4, and Lukas, 2 are my son’s. The four of them are very close and live near each other.
Despite my 50 years as a developmental psychologist, I had not one clue how to begin. Neither did my daughter, Alexis. We asked the psychotherapists we know, conferred with social workers, and searched the internet. We ask advice from colleagues and friends. The social workers and nurses told us to be “transparent,” without them too much or too little, and not too early, or too late. We felt like Goldilocks without a clear way to know what was “just right.” As the end came near, the hospice nurse and our social workers seemed certain we should tell the kids that Don would die soon. They all told us to make sure we used the word “die,” but no one seemed to know how to compose the rest of the sentence.
Here’s part of what we learned: children of different ages need different things. Lukas, like all babies, reflected the stress around him. Usually, a happy, easy baby, he began having trouble sleeping and seemed especially attuned to his sister’s distress. We focused on keeping his routine steady and providing security and support through our physical presence with him. For infants and small children, comfort and consistency are crucial. For Kaiya, Lukas’ four-year-old sister, simple explanations like “Uncle Don’s body has stopped working and the doctors can’t help anymore,” seemed to be the key. We were also careful to say that he was dying of cancer, so that she wouldn’t be alarmed when someone caught the flu.
Six-year-old Emmy refused to talk about the situation. If you told her you wanted to talk about what was happening to Daddy, she’d change the subject, or laugh and walk away. A conversation with her might look like this:
“Are you okay?”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“Are you sure?”
We tried many time to tell her, but she couldn’t tolerate the idea that her Daddy was dying. Young children often deny facts that upset them, and that’s okay. You can’t force them to listen. When he died, however, she was the most upset.
“Now I’ll never have a daddy,” she said.
She wanted to see him after he died, so we let her and she seemed okay for a while. A month later, though, she began having rages over small things, banging her head and tearing her hair out, kicking and screaming. We took her to a therapist who helped us discover that she felt Don’s death was her fault. This is very common among school-aged children Emmy also told the therapist that she thought she made a mistake asking to see her daddy’s body. Children her age often display magical thinking under stress, and she may have been thinking she could bring him back, or that he wasn’t really dead. With the start of school and the resumption of her participation in activities like Taekwondo and volleyball, she seems to be coming around.
Lily, the 10 year old, spent little time with her dying dad, but she was ready to talk about it well before it happened. We realized this when we noticed her sneaking around to hear hushed discussion in the “other room,” where people went to exclude her. We asked her what she thought was going on.
“He’s really sick,” she said. “He might die in like five years.”
“He doesn’t really have that long.”
“No.” She began to cry.
Don died at home a week later. Lily was still sleeping when we went to tell her that he had died earlier that morning. It was too hard for Alexis, so I mustered up my courage and said, “Honey, Daddy died this morning.”
“Okay,” she said, simple as that.
“Do you want to see him?”
“No,” she said.
“Okay. Do you want to go to Starbuck’s while the people come to get him?”
“Yes. Can I have caffeine and sugar?”
On the way to Starbuck’s, Lily asked for permission to feel relieved. Don had been horribly sick for a year.
“Is it okay to be happy?”
“Of course, I said. “It’s okay to be any way you feel. In the next few months, you’ll feel up and down, sad and angry, relieved it’s over, and happy you’re alive. It comes in waves, and all of it is okay.
Children are resilient. The research shows that the death of a parent does not have to have long-term, negative consequences. Marilynn Price-Mitchell has written about this in her article on grief as a gift. It’s important to help them keep a routine. Keep them in the same school, in the same home, and, if possible, with the same friends. Make sure you don’t get so wound up in your own grief that you can’t be responsive to their needs. Words count, but your loving attention is the key.
So, after all the research and discussion, I’ve concluded there are five things to remember when you start a conversation with a child whose loved one is dying.
- Talk to each child separately. Each child is different. You want to focus your talk according their individual reactions.
- If a child is willing to talk, ask what they think is happening. Listen to their ideas and begin by filling in the gaps or correcting wrong impressions.
- Supply additional information as it unfolds. Start with “Daddy is really sick with (diagnosis). The doctors are trying to help him, but they don’t know if they can.” Later, you might say, “The doctors are saying that Daddy isn’t going to get better.” Finally, if they will listen, you can say, “Daddy isn’t doing well and the doctors say he will die soon.”
- Invite questions and answer them honestly.
- Try to determine whether the child is taking responsibility for the situation and remind him or her that children do not cause such illnesses and they cannot cure them.
For ways to help adolescents and young adults, you may want to look at some suggestions Dr. Lisa Athan on her website, Grief Speaks.