By Myra Strassler, LCSW-C
My family was gathered together around the Thanksgiving table. We were catching up with each other’s lives and ooing and ahing over the dishes each of us had brought to the dinner when my five year old cousin stopped us in our tracks by asking, “Do you know that the turkey was alive just like you and me?” A little rattled by his observation and direct question, we all fell silent and waited for his parents to answer.
At that moment I was reminded that in a culture that prides itself on accomplishing death defying acts, like stopping a patient’s heart from beating while a surgeon repairs or replaces a heart valve, death is always present in some form. Children encounter death daily. They even incorporate it in their play, as when the bad guy gets shot and dramatically falls dead, even if for only a moment. Children are aware and often curious about death. Parents, however, find this topic difficult to talk about with their children.
Why is this? Through our own experiences with death we may be left feeling ill equipped to talk about this highly charged, emotional subject, or we may simply want to spare our children from a reality that could cause pain. On the other hand, we want to equip our children to manage the challenges life—and death is a significant part of life.
With some preparation, you can talk more comfortably with your children about this complex subject.
• Start with a coherent sense of your own experiences with death. What were your first experiences? How did you feel? What questions did you have? What was helpful to you and what would you change? Self-understanding enables you to offer the kind of factual and emotional knowledge that will help your children make sense of their own experiences.
• The best time to talk with children about death is before the death of a loved one occurs, when the subject is not complicated by strong emotions. Sometimes children initiate opportunities for us to teach them about death, as in our family Thanksgiving conversation.
• A useful way to explain death is by describing it as the absence of life. Whatever a pet or a loved one can do when alive, they cannot do after they have died.
• When talking about death, use the correct language. Young children think very concretely. For example, when you say that someone who has died “is gone,” a child may wonder when the person will return. If you say your pet was “put to sleep,” the child may ask when it will wake up, or may be afraid to go to sleep himself. As hard as it is to use the correct language, you are helping the child connect with reality. Check to make certain the child understands the words you are using.
Just as children think more literally than adults, they understand death differently at different developmental stages.
• A preschooler does not understand the concept of forever. Be consistent with your explanation about the finality of death. He may need to hear the same information repeated many times.
• Young school age children are beginning to view death as real. Simultaneously they are beginning to take pride in their abilities. Through “magical thinking,” they may believe that if they are careful and smart enough, they can avoid death. Some may feel guilty, believing that they could have done something to prevent the death of their loved one. Parents need to be clear about the real causes of death and reassure children they did not cause and could not stop what happened.
• Older school age children know that death has many causes and can happen to young as well as old people. However they continue think that death usually happens to others. At about age ten, children begin to fear that a parent might die.
• Some teenagers are fascinated with death and spend time fantasizing about their own deaths. But they are not in touch with the finality of death and may challenge death by engaging in risk-taking behavior.
As children understand death differently, they also experience grief differently. Some children may not grieve openly, but this does not mean they are not feeling grief. Parents need to help children deal with the reality of death on their children’s level.
• Encourage your children to ask questions and express their feelings.
• Although children should not be forced to attend funerals or any other rituals around death, if they want to attend, their participation can help them gain a fuller understanding of death. They can also find comfort and a sense of belonging and realize that they are not alone. “Even the saddest day can be endured by children when the experience and suffering is shared.” (“The Art of Condolence,” Zunin and Zunin)
• Before children attend funerals or go to the cemetery, an adult needs to take the time to prepare them about what to expect, and an adult should be with them at all times during these services.
• There are many books written for parents to read with their children to help them understand and talk about death.
Helping our children make sense of death can have a profound effect on their development. When death enters our children’s lives and we respond in a sensitive and informed manner, we are helping our children learn to manage a difficult and inevitable part of life. We are not only providing them with skills to manage this current circumstance, but also we are building the foundation for them to manage hard events that will occur in other parts of their lives.
By Myra Strassler, LCSW-C, Therapy Services, Jewish Community Services, Baltimore, MD
Questions about parenting? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about how JCS can help you solve life’s puzzles, visit http://www.jcsbaltimore.org or call 410-466-9200. Jewish Community Services is an agency of THE ASSOCIATED: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.
Some Helpful Resources:
Marjorie Levinson Memorial Library, Sol Levinson & Bros., Inc., 8900 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville, MD. Free lending library.
H. Fitzgerald, “The Grieving Child: A Parent’s Guide.” Simon and Schuster. 1992.
Earl A. Grollman, “Talking about Death: A Dialogue between Parent and Child” and “Explaining Death to Children,” Beacon Press, 1990 and 1967.
Claudia Jewett Jarratt, “Helping Children Cope with Separation and Loss.” Harvard Common Press, 1994.
L.M. Zunin and H.S. Zunin, “The Art of Condolence,” by L.M. Zunin and H.S. Zunin. Harper Collins, 1991.
Judith Viorst, “The Tenth Good Thing about Barney.” Aladdin Books, 1971.