As a parent educator, I rarely use the word "should." As a matter of fact, I cringe at the idea of giving parents one more SHOULD, almost as much as many parents cringe at the idea of talking to their kids about death.
But after a spate of violence and random death in Seattle, I realized how few parents discuss the topic of death with their children before they are forced to. This is where the SHOULD comes in. We should talk to them because it will help our children and us move through the pain of loss just a little bit easier. For those of us who have lost loved ones, even the tiniest bit easier is worth it.
Many parents say they don’t talk to their kids about the concept of death because they don’t know what to say. While that may be true, I suspect that belief is coming from the idea that we don’t want to scare our children or worry them. But we do our children a disservice if we let those hard emotions stop us from sharing something that is as much a part of life as life itself.
Imagine your child’s first day of school. What if, because you didn’t want them to feel scared or worried, you avoided the word “school” for years? What happens when the first day of school arrives? How might that first drop-off feel for them? For you? My guess is with no framework or understanding of where they are and what they are doing there, our kids might feel pretty scared, alone, and quite anxious.
Of course we don’t do this! Many parents spend a great deal of time carefully preparing their child for school. It’s not usually a sit-down formal conversation about the history and theory of elementary education. It’s many small moments throughout early childhood that help them build a mental model for this concept of school. Those mental models are what help decrease fear and anxiety, and more importantly, normalize a part of life for most Americans.
Start with the small moments
Start by talking to children about death in the small moments, which gives them a framework for beginning to comprehend a loss when it does occur. When I say small moments, I mean everyday examples of the circle of life in all of its forms. Notice the life cycle of flowers and plants. Flowers bloom and then they die. If they notice a dead worm on the sidewalk, it’s a chance to use the word "death" again.
If they hear about someone dying, you can talk about how people are born, they live their lives, and then they die. These do not need to be deep, long discussions, just opportunities for them to build that mental model of death in a time when they are not experiencing a personal sense of loss.
The medium-size losses
While we all hope our kids will not have to face the death of a loved one during their childhood, you can be sure they will experience loss. When best friends move away or pets die, our children will feel it. These hard moments are perfect opportunities to talk about what it feels like to lose something important. Empathy is huge here.
While losing a favorite rock may seem insignificant to you, validating your child’s feelings is critical to helping your child know that they have a hand to hold through their loss. When they learn they can talk to you about their grief, they will be more likely to in the future. They will feel safe even in the midst of a loss. When they do lose a loved one, they will know you are there. This is huge for building resilience.
The big moments may be huge
My grandfather, or Papu as I called him, passed away a little over a year ago. He was 92, had heart problems for years, and it was not unexpected. He played a very active role in my life, and we were very close. As the children of a social worker and parent educator, my kids have had several children’s books about death in their reading rotation since birth. We had read them, talked about death in the small and medium moments, and I knew my kids would get through the loss.
What was most surprising to me, was my own level of shock when the news arrived. We were at my dad and stepmom’s home when my mom called. As my heart sank, I ran outside knowing I was about to scream and not wanting to scare my children, then 3 and 6. I thought I had cleared the view of the windows and screamed and rolled around on the grass feeling as if my heart was breaking.
After I calmed down and returned inside, I found out my daughters had seen me. I worried my level of emotion might be scary to them. My stepmom, an oncology social worker, had the perfect words at that moment. She told me I had actually given my children a gift by letting them see what grief looks like. She reminded me how often grownups hide their grief and pain and how that prevents children from building that mental model.
I turned to my girls and told them Papu died. I said that meant we wouldn’t see him anymore. I told them I was screaming and crying because I was very sad and it hurt in my heart. I let them know that it’s ok to let your feelings out and that is what mommy was doing. I asked if it had scared them and they said no. I told them that I might cry a bit over the next days and weeks, as I was sad that I wouldn’t see him anymore. I also let them know that it was okay if they felt sad and okay if they felt happy. The important part was just to know that we are all going to get through this together.
Looking back, I wonder why I thought that level of emotion would scare them when I have seen them both rolling on the floor screaming in the midst of a tantrum on at least one occasion. I think in the midst of my own pain, I had that deep instinct to shield them, protect them from the pain of the world. In my calm self, I know better.
There is nothing more predictable in life than the fact that death will occur. We don’t know when, but it will be there. That memory my girls will have, stored away in their brains, may be the thing that helps them feel safe and normal in the midst of their own great pain someday. They will know their mommy felt so sad and she was still mommy, still okay and still there for them.
Let them grieve with others
The funeral was the next day, so we had some immediate decisions to make. My younger child was sick and the funeral was during nap time, so I decided to let her stay home. I wanted my 6-year-old there, though. Kids need that closing ritual, too. They need that chance to say goodbye and the opportunity to understand what is happening.
Parents do need to take care of themselves, so be sure to find another grownup with whom your child is very comfortable to be their buddy during the funeral and after. This person should be removed enough from the loss that they can tune in to the child and answer questions. They can still be sad and express emotions, but not so much that they won’t be able to be present for the child.
Being at the funeral was important for my daughter. She was fascinated by both the cemetery and the burial service. She had many questions about the logistics of death and what happens to the body. We let her be where she was. This was her time to continue building her mental model of death and loss. For her, this was most likely more on the medium-size loss scale. She had the opportunity to witness her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother stand together in grief over our big loss and know that we are not alone in loss. I have no doubt that this will help her with future big losses.
We have no problem sharing the great joy with our children. We relish it. We also need to share grief and loss with them and prepare them. It will give them a fuller experience of life in the long run.
Here are some of my favorite children’s books that deal with death and loss. Remember, you don't need to wait until a loss occurs to read these!
One way we can get more comfortable with talking to children about loss is by getting more comfortable with this topic in general. What losses has your child experienced? What losses did you experience in your own childhood? What helped? What didn't? Your willingness to share helps us all gain more comfort with a difficult topic.
Sarina Behar Natkin, LICSW is a parent educator and consultant in the Seattle area. She co-founded GROW Parenting to provide parents with the tools and support they need to raise healthy children and find more joy in parenting. GROW Parenting offers parent coaching and classes and frequently speaks at area schools and businesses. Check out GROW Parenting’s Blog for more great tips on common parenting issues and Facebook for the latest news in parent education!