Death is everyone’s least favorite subject. We don’t want to think about it, we often don’t want to hear about it, and we usually don’t want to talk about it - especially not with our kids. But Joseph Primo, CEO of Good Grief, a bereavement program for children and families based in Morristown, New Jersey, advocates that addressing the issue with children is a healthy necessity. His new book “What Do We Tell the Children? Talking to Kids about Death and Dying,” explores the main components of children’s grief and offers insight as to how to make the topic a little less scary. Here are four essential takeaways.
We can’t teach children about a new concept by relating it to a concept that they don’t already understand. Children are concrete thinkers, so using abstract metaphors and religious interpretations to explain death will only lead to confusion. Telling a child that a loved one passed away or went to Heaven may give you solace, but it prompts the child with a question that is difficult to answer: Will the loved one come back? Death itself is biological, so communicate it as such in order to help the child comprehend the situation. Primo recommends breaking it down in basic terms:
Q. How do we know we are alive?
A. We eat, drink, breathe, poop (they love that one!), burp, sleep, tweet, run, and so on.
Q. How do we know something is dead?
A. It can’t eat, drink, breathe, poop, burp, sleep, tweet, run, and so on. When we die, our heart doesn’t beat. Our lungs don’t breathe in oxygen. Our feet can’t walk, and our body no longer works.
Despite popular belief, there are no stages to the grieving process, says Primo. Grief is a feeling – one that we can’t plot and quantify. Be open to recognizing that your child wanting to shoot hoops after learning of the death of a grandparent does not mean he's emotionally defective. He is a part of a diverse population that works through grief by various methods and in varying speeds.
Make it known that you will be a supportive listener whenever your child is ready to talk, and once she’s ready, let her do the talking. Encourage (don’t force) her to explore and share her feelings by asking open-ended questions like “What was that day like for you?” and “What have other people said about what happened?” Hold up your end of the deal by honestly answering any questions that she may have.
Seeing others express negative emotions makes us uncomfortable. We have a natural tendency to want to “fix” sad, but in reality, telling a grieving child that everything will be fine is not as helpful as we intend it to be. Primo reminds us that the most important question to ask is one of our own motives: “Am I talking to feel important and share my thoughts, or to facilitate a conversation?” Age doesn’t equal answers, so detach from your ego, and act like a kid. When you fully focus on relating to the child and his needs, he will appreciate your nonjudgmental presence and grow to trust you as a safe confidant.
Image: Sad Child via Shutterstock