Dear Thornhill Parent Community:
This is Ms. Alia, your new Mental Health Consultant as of this school year, and Licensed Clinical Social Worker. Today I come to you with the unfortunate task of exploring a very difficult issue, and one that is close to our hearts as a school community at this present time: Talking to children about death. For such a conversation, I will put on the hat that I previously wore in my career as a Hospice Social Worker, having ushered multiple families with children through the final stages of their life. I have also been tasked with counseling many children around an unexpected death of a beloved person in their life, and for this podcast I will simply draw upon what I learned from those experiences.
Our community serves a wide developmental range of students as a K-5, and because of this, the way that we address children will really depend upon their age, maturity level, and previous experiences with death. You all know your children much better than I, of course, and because of that I would advise you to use whatever I may share that is helpful, and not give much mind to things that do not resonate for your specific child.
I can say that it is uncommon for children much younger than around 7 or so to understand the concept of death. Because of this, our approach to Kinder and 1st grade (and sometimes 2nd grade) students would be very different than other ages on our campus. For this age group, literature around death can be an important tool to use. Some of the books I liked to read to young children during my Hospice career were “The Invisible String” by Patrice Karst, “Where Are You? A Child’s Book About Loss”by Laura Olivieri, “Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way To Explain Death to Children” by Brian Melloni, and “The Next Place” by Warren Hanson. This can be a good way to start a conversation, but certainly should be only a jumping off point. My first question sometimes before I even read to young children is, “What do you think happened to Grandma?” Or Mommy? Or whomever the deceased person might be. This will give you a window into how much they comprehend of what has happened and where your starting point is. I can tell you that many kids will say something like, “She was really sick and then she went away.” Or, “She was sick and now she’s in Heaven.” Although it is tempting to think that they can correlate being sick with no longer being alive, this concept is still very fuzzy. I may follow up such a response with, “Where do you believe she went away to?” Depending on religious backgrounds, previous experiences with pet or human deaths, and exposure to such conversations, where mommy or grandma went away to may be very unclear. And your answer may incorporate your own beliefs.
At this time it is helpful to keep answers short and concrete. Something to the effect of, “Yes, grandma was sick and was at the hospital. But she got so sick that she couldn’t get better, and she is not at the hospital anymore. Her body stopped working, and she died. Her body is at the cemetery now, and we can go visit it if you would like. We can talk to her grave at the cemetery, but we will not be able to see her, and she will not talk back because she is no longer alive.” If your child has been raised with a religious background, or with the concept of Heaven, helpful responses might look like, “Grandma was really sick, and her body stopped working and she died. Now she is in Heaven with Grandpa, and although we cannot see her anymore, we can talk to her spirit. And I believe she will hear us and be looking down on us.” Young children will often ask if they are coming back. This is not the time to talk about concepts like where her spirit is, and how we can talk to her spirit. This calls for concrete information like, “No, she will not come back and I feel very sad about not seeing her anymore.” Try not to go into complicated responses that give more detail than the child is asking for. Stick to simple responses, and wait for, or ask for, more questions. “Is there anything you’d like to ask me about this?” is one way to elicit how much further the child wants to discuss the loss. Follow their lead. If they are done asking questions, let them know that if they have more at a later time, you are happy to answer them. And then it’s okay to move on.
One important element to address is emotionality. I’ve met many adults who think it is best and less upsetting to grieve away from their children, for fear of upsetting them. This thinking, although well intended, can actually be quite damaging. It is best for children to be given permission to outwardly express emotionality through role modeling. Crying in front of your children about a death is an important indicator to them that it is healthy and okay to cry about something as big as a death, and that something very serious has occurred. If you begin to cry while talking to your child, simply narrate what is happening to help them connect the action to the emotional state. For example, “I am crying right now because it makes me feel so sad that grandma is no longer alive, and I won’t see her anymore. And it’s okay if you’d like to cry too. Whatever your heart feels like it needs to do right now is okay with me.”
Parents are often surprised by children’s reactions to death. For some reason we have a prescribed way that we expect them to react. Know that every person, child or adult, grieves differently. For children, it is very normal for them to cry. But I have often encountered that it takes them a bit of processing time before they can even begin to understand what has occurred, and often the tears come later. It is also normal for them to look completely fine in certain settings, such as school. Grieving is a marathon, not a sprint. And children often need to do it slowly, in many different environments, and with various different support people. Often they need to ask the same question multiple times before they understand, or even react. Follow their lead. Sit with them, cry with them, comfort them, offer them support but do not force it upon them, or just give them the information and move on when they say, “Okay, can I have a snack now?” All of these are typical and normal reactions.
For young children, it is also normal for them to be fearful, to regress behaviorally, to want to sleep with or generally be closer to their parents after a death. Identify and name these reactions for them. For example, “I hear that you want to sleep in my bed. I’m wondering if you feel upset by the fact that your friend’s mommy died, and scared that something might happen to me? I am healthy and okay, and I am here with you. Let me walk you back into your room and tuck you into bed.” For older children, fearful responses about the impermanency of life can occur, presenting as anxiety or looking like mild to moderate depression. These are all typical reactions.
Older children, I would say ages 8 and up, can generally conceptualize death. Much of what I have already shared is still applicable to them, but they might ask more in-depth questions rather than having behavioral regressions or needing death explained through literature. Many have experienced the death of a pet or relative, family friend, or acquaintance already. You can draw upon these experiences to help them cope with the loss. Again, being direct and using direct terminology is helpful. “Mary, I know you have learned by now that a staff member at your school died this weekend. This is very upsetting to me, and I am wondering if you are having feelings about it also. Do you want to talk about what you have heard, or ask me any questions?”
Again, verbalizing that outward expression of emotions is healthy can be very freeing to children. Something to the effect of, “Sometimes when I think about the fact that a parent in our community has died, I cry about it. Or I feel so sad and helpless. Do you ever feel that way?” For older kids, talking to them about how to offer support to peers or other people in the community who have been impacted is developmentally appropriate and helps further enhance skills around empathy and compassion, as well as diminish feelings of helplessness. You can lead your child in a discussion about how to provide support by conversations starters such as, “What do you think you might want from a friend if you were going through something this hard? I might want my friends to ask how I am doing, or offer me a hug. Can I show you how I might go up to her and offer support?” Younger children generally struggle with the understanding of the concept of death, whereas older children generally struggle with how to grieve themselves, how to help others close to them who have also suffered the loss, or feelings of fear around the fact that it could happen to them.
The biggest misconception about children who are experiencing the death of a loved one is that they don’t want to be reminded of the loss. Trust me, they have not forgotten. Something as simple as, “I’m so sorry Ms. Smith died. I’ve been thinking about you a lot and wondering how you are doing?,” goes a long way. Or, “I’m so sorry to hear about your Mom. Can I give you a hug?” I often ask children that I work with, “How do you want me to support you right now? Would you like to talk about Ms. Smith? Would you like a bit of distraction from what is going on, like playing a game?” Surprisingly, kids often know what they want and can verbalize it. Even young kids. Teach children who have not been the primary bereaved person not to tip toe around the issue of their classmate or friend’s loss, but to go towards the discomfort and address it. As adults, remind yourself to do the same. Try to avoid cliché statements such as, “She’s in a better place now,” or “At least she is no longer suffering.” Although well intended, these statements can minimize a child’s loss and lead to them thinking that expressing sadness over the loss is the wrong thing to do because they should be happy for their deceased loved one to be out of their suffering. Also, being in “a better place” is a concept that some children might not understand, and that some families may not have as part of their belief system.
But above all, know that every child, every person, grieves differently; that this is a process, and that the first year is generally the hardest. Remember to keep checking on your child to see how they are doing with the loss. Check in four and five and eight months down the line. And although every child’s process with understanding and coping with a death is different and normal, if you feel concerned about your child’s response, please reach out to me, or Mr. Daubenspeck, or another mental health professional. Be kind to yourselves through this enormous loss, and know that support is available. Let’s all take care of each other.
Alia Dolan, LCSW