(Originally posted by Corey Wisler on Tapinto.net on January 25, 2016)
“My husband is going to die and I have no idea how to tell our 3-year-old daughter.”
This sentence comes speeding through the receiver the moment I pick up the phone. If this were my private phone line then perhaps this would seem strange, but it’s not. It’s my work line at Imagine, A Center for Coping with Loss, where calls like this happen fairly often.
We understand the urgency and anxiety behind these calls. There are fewer tasks more challenging than telling a child that someone in their life is going to die. Parents or guardians, who are usually in the business of relieving a child’s pain, dread having this conversation. Many adults in this position call Imagine seeking support and advice about how to talk to their children about death.
So what is the first step? Be honest.
Children can sense when a change has occurred. Adults speaking in hushed tones, changes in the daily routine and general feelings of sadness, agitation and worry do not go unnoticed by children. This is true even if they do not vocalize that they notice the changes. Just as children are sponges for knowledge, they are also sponges for feelings. Children absorb the atmosphere of the household. Still, many adults believe that by ignoring the conversation, or prolonging it until the last possible moment, children will be protected. This intention comes from a good place, but can cause more harm than good. Concealing information can produce anxiety in children.
How do you begin such an important conversation? Mandi Zucker, Program Director at Imagine, states, “Starting the conversation may be the hardest part. It’s a good idea to practice what you are going to say with a trusted friend or mentor.”
Start by stating the facts. Using factual information will help your child develop a deeper cognitive understanding of death. Use language that is developmentally appropriate. In-depth medical details will confuse young children, but understanding the connection between the body and death is key.
Explain that when a person dies their body stops working and they do not eat, think, sleep, feel or talk. Because it is normal for a child to be worried that their body will stop working, too, it is important to remind children that they are safe and that people can get sick without dying.
Spiritual beliefs about the afterlife can be comforting but also confusing for children. We’ve heard stories about children feeling extremely upset and panicked while at the cemetery to visit their family member’s grave because they believed their person was in heaven. Now they were told that he was actually buried in the ground. We can only imagine how angry and confused a child could be after learning that someone is in heaven only to find out that they have been buried in the ground, or cremated and put in an urn in their home.
How can well-meaning adults avoid this unfortunate situation, and instead foster a supportive, realistic view of death and create trust between them and the child? By explaining that the grandfather’s body is in the ground, but that they believe his soul is in heaven.
Facts and information are important, but children ultimately need to feel emotionally secure. Open the conversation to questions and concerns. Ask the child how they feel. Validate their feelings by showing empathy through statements like, “You feel sad” and normalize their feelings by saying, “I feel sad, too.” Remind your child that they can always come to you with questions or to talk about feelings. In the end, all children want and need to feel felt.
Before you panic about getting everything right, remember that it is okay to do a “retake.” Mandi Zucker, Imagine Program Director says, “It’s important to remember that you don’t have to have all the answers. The first conversation should be just that – a first. If you see this as a long process that you will continue talking about, you may feel less burdened to have to say everything and have all of the answers in one conversation.”