How To Talk To Children About Death

What do you say to a child whose sibling has died? Advice from a mother of six, one of whom died unexpectedly at age 17.

It's a scenario you never want to live through. Believe me, I know what it's like and I wouldn't wish it on anyone. But it happens every day.

I was on an airplane with my mother, my youngest son and my first (at that time only) grandson, off to enjoy a holiday. We walked off the airplane into a group of people whose job was to tell me my son John had died.

I didn't like being me at that moment, but I wouldn't have wanted to be them, either. They did, however, a wonderful job of seeing that I got back to where John no longer lived, to his sisters and his other brother and his stepfather.

I didn't have to tell my children that John had died, but we had many conversations centered on why. Why did he die? Why didn't they die instead? Why then? Which sibling would be next? What could any of us have done to prevent John's dying when he did?

Because he was a minor who died unexpectedly at home, the law required an autopsy. Sadly, the autopsy provided no answers. The medical examiner said they found a perfectly healthy dead body.

The other children continued to have questions, to have fears. We all wondered whether what killed John would strike again within our family.

My little grandson, who was not quite two at the time, had been a big favorite with his Uncle John. He said things the others tried to be too grown-up to say out loud. "I don't want my Uncle John to be dead."

Because I lived through this horrid time and, being a writer, wrote a book about it, people declared me an expert. I was called upon to give seminars for people whose children had died. I learned far more than I taught.

Parents are afraid to talk to their children about death. They use other words, meant to calm the children, meant also to spare the parents who are hurting terribly. In skirting the issue, though, and using other words, parents often fail to give the comfort their children long for.

Nothing will bring back the beloved sister or brother, the beloved son or daughter. Where you believe the soul of that person has gone is a matter too personal to discuss here. My words are meant to ease conversation between parents and their surviving children.

Do not ever, no matter how tempting, no matter how young the child is, say their brother or sister is sleeping. Not, that is, unless you want to spend years calming the child who refuses to sleep for fear of dying. Or, as some parents told me their children did, who refuses to get out of bed because they mean to join their dead brother or sister and sleeping is their vehicle to do that.

Do not tell a child a dead sibling is on vacation. Do not say he or she is visiting somewhere else. Not if you ever want that child to walk out your door with ease, or to let you do so.

Do not tell a child their brother or sister is lost. I didn't lose John, and I won't be losing any of the others, either, thank you very much. You didn't lose your child who died, either, and cannot - no matter how much you would like to - somehow go find him and bring him home. Children know about lost from puppies and keys and homework. Don't confuse them.

Do not shy away from the word "dead," the word "death." There are so many other ways to talk about death, but clarity helps a child accept the situation. "Gone" leaves the possibility of returning. "Lost" implies findable. "Passed away" sounds fine to adults, but I heard story after story of young children who wanted to be held back in school rather than "passed" to the next grade. They weren't ready to be "passed away" as their brother or sister had.

Tell your children you don't know. Tell them you don't understand. Tell them you haven't answers but you do have love. Tell them you love them and are so very glad they are not dead, that they're alive.

Invite them to talk to you by talking to them. Of course, you won't tell them everything that's on your mind. Still, if they think they're the only ones who feel that longing for time with someone who is no longer around, it's tougher for them to heal.

Many of their friends in these troubled times will have experienced death in their households, too. Children hear things that frighten them from others their own age. They need to be able to tell you these things, to say "I don't understand." To say, "I don't like this one bit."

They need to be able to say, "I don't want my brother, or my sister, to be dead."

As a person, you need to be able to say to them, "Neither do I." As their parent, you need to go one step beyond that and say, "I am so glad you are alive. We will always remember John, and we will live even though he didn't."

You are the holder of truth for your children. The dispenser of hope. The person they trust most when they are frightened. I ache for you as you face the next years without the child you loved. I honor you as you make certain your surviving child(ren) learns that life is worth all the trouble it brings.

Trending Now

© High Speed Ventures 2011