In the first instalment of a three-part series, we discuss how we can talk to our children about death and dying. Here’s how you can start the conversation.
When Will Lee, the actor who played Mr. Hooper on Sesame Street, died in 1982, the producers of the show decided to use it as an opportunity to explain the concept of death to their young viewers. Through Big Bird (the programme’s representative five-year-old), children were able to gain access to some of the basic questions on what happens when someone dies, and have them answered in a safe environment. (see the clip here)
Death is a subject that parents have difficulty broaching, whether out of a sense of taboo, or because of our own discomfort. Hence, when it happens, kids are often locked out of the conversation. Parents are either too caught up in their own grief to talk, or think they can protect their children by avoiding the subject.
But telling a child can help make things better. When children are not given an explanation of what an event, they tend to construct their own versions of it — wild fantasies that are often worse than the actual reality itself.
“Whispers are terrible to a child,” writes Hal Fishkin, child psychiatrist and author of How Do We Tell the Children?: A Step-By-Step Guide for Helping Children and Teens Cope When Someone Dies. “Whispers, secrets, fairy tales… It’s really condescending, patronising to assume children can’t deal with the traumas we can.”
Whether it arrives suddenly or through a long-drawn process because of illnesses, death is something we all have to confront eventually.
Breaking the News about Death
To communicate with our children effectively about death, we need to know what they think about it and then match our message with their level of development.
Initially, kids do not need to be bogged down by the scientific details. But it is important to get the facts to them quickly, before other people give them different versions of the story.
This three-step process can help:
1. First, find a quiet place and structure your message as if you were telling a story. Tell your child that a sad thing has happened — that someone has died.
2. Next, reassure your child and let him know you will be there for him.
3. Finally, describe what will happen in the next few days, and how he will fit in.
In almost all cases, honesty is the best way forward. When the prognosis is bad, some parents may even choose to gently mention the possibility of death so that the child can start his grief work early.
“Generally, there are benefits (for the child) to anticipate the impending grief, especially when he or she is emotionally close to that person who is dying,” says Dr. Alvin Liew, Consultant Psychiatrist and Director of the Adult & Child Psychological Wellness Clinic.
“If the child is older, for example, in the late childhood to adolescence age, sharing early can give the child time to understand and process the impending death event. It may also allow the child some time to plan and execute any activities, which he or she wishes to complete with that family member.”
If a child has been getting straightforward updates about Uncle’s cancer, he may be better cushioned for the shock when the time comes.
To introduce the condition, you could say, “Uncle is in hospital because he has cancer. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s different from a cold or flu and you won’t get sick from touching him.”
Ultimately, when the time comes, you could say something like, “A very sad thing happened today. Usually when people get sick, they get better. But some people are not strong enough to fight the illness. Their bodies get worn out and they die. That’s what happened to Uncle. And that’s why everyone is so sad.”
If the illness or death is sudden, as in the case of a heart attack, parents could share their own surprise. “This doesn’t happen often. He didn’t know he was going to die, and neither did we. It was so sudden and we’re really surprised and sad.”
Explaining Death to Children of Different Ages
Two to Five Years
What they think: Magical thinking plays a big part in children’s lives at this stage. They view death as something reversible and impermanent. A four-year-old may even say, “If Auntie died last week can she still play with me tomorrow?” As death is new and strange, they may be overwhelmed by the conversations and emotions of other people around them. Therefore, it is important to talk to them before they form an inaccurate picture of what has happened.
What you can do: Give short, honest, and consistent messages, using language they can understand. Acknowledge their feelings and let them know it is okay to feel sad. Listen actively for misinterpretations and respond in an age-appropriate manner.
Six to Nine Years
What they think: Children in this age group are able to understand the concept of death and its finality. However, they still find it hard to accept the fact that death has to happen to everyone, especially themselves. They see death as a “taker”, or something violent. Many are still prone to magical thinking and are afraid that death is contagious.
What you can do: It is important to allow and encourage expression of feelings through physical outlets, such as drawing and artwork. Let them know it is okay to show their emotions.
Nine to Twelve Years
What they think: Preteens have a strong sense of morality, which may lead them to think that death is a punishment for bad behavior. They are curious about the biological details of what happened. As they are developing their cognitive and emotional skills, funeral rites — and whether they are carried out “correctly” — are important to them.
What you can do: Encourage them to talk about their feelings but allow them to have a sense of control, as well as time alone, to process the information.
What they think: Teenagers are able to comprehend death at the same level as adults. They may even philosophise about it and contrast it to their rapidly maturing bodies. While adults need to spend considerable time choosing the right words to explain the concept of death to young children, this is not necessarily the case with young people.
What they need in this time of crisis is a friend-cum-coach who can understand the emotional upheavals they are going through and help them work through their grief. With a growing sense of responsibility as a newly independent person, they may be prone to feelings of guilt and even anger. “If only I had told Grandpa to stop smoking.” “If only I had visited Grandma more often.” More than before, teenagers become acutely aware of their parents’ mortality.
What you can do: While you can encourage them to verbalise their thoughts, be mindful of their need to work through their feelings alone. Listen and be available. Do not assume control of their emotions or tell them to “cheer up”. Grief is a normal response. Helping teenagers accept the fact that they are mourning will help them progress in their grief journey.