Last night I attended a wake for a 7 year old little girl from my community. She had attended the same school my boys attend, and had been in the same class with my 8 year old. Her parents have been dealing with the unimaginable... having a child diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that is inoperable and incurable and fatal. She lived 8 months after her diagnosis in February of 2017. And while my heart feels that it is literally breaking inside me as I empathize for her parents and family, I also am faced with how to talk to my 8 and 6 year olds about death, dying, and even worse... a CHILD DYING. I realized that while these conversations are so terrible and difficult to have, they are also incredibly profound and impactful to a child's life. They are also substantive of how my children will now understand the cycle of life and how we deal with these things.
Research and experience tells us that children adapt to major life changes (moving, divorce, loss) in direct correlation to how the parent(s) adapt to the same changes. So as a parent, if I am hysterically crying day in and day out about a major adjustment in my life, odds are that my child or children will also begin to show some type of emotional reaction (whether that be acting out or even withdrawal). With this in mind, you would ideally be able to appropriately express your own concern and emotion about the issue while talking to your child.
I realized as I sat down with my boys to talk about Sophia's illness and then later her passing, that there are a lot of other moms and dads having this very same talk in my community this week. After talking to a few other mom friends, I also realized that some of them had not had that talk with their child because they were scared and really didn't know what or how to say it. I am including here a few tips on how to talk to your child about death and dying, or really about any difficult topic.
1. TIMING: Find a time that is calm and is normally a "safe" time for open conversation with your child. Maybe this is at bedtime after reading a book. Maybe it is in the car while carpooling. The important thing is to pick a time when you know that you have your child's attention and can talk about important things.
2. WORDING: Use words that are age and developmentally appropriate. An 8 year old and a 4 year old are going to have very different levels of understanding in the world, so you want to present information to them that they can understand. Younger children usually do best with more concrete information.
3. EXPLANATION: Explain things in the most simplistic terms that you can. For example, for my 6 year old I was able to say, "Sophia got very sick in her brain. This sickness doesn't happen very often and not many children ever get sick like Sophia. Her mind and her heart are ok but her brain is sick so it is telling her body not to work anymore."
4. COMFORT: As I mentioned earlier, children grasp things best when given information in concrete terms. Often, the comforting words that we give them does more to comfort us as adults than it does for the kids. I do recommend that you give some kind of comforting statement based on your own understanding and belief system.
With both of my boys, I was able to explain that Sophia's brain was sick and telling her body not to work anymore, but now her heart and mind can go be with Jesus, and He can heal her body in Heaven. They were obviously sad about this, but also were comforted to know that she is in Heaven and feels no more pain.
5. EMOTION: Remember that there are no wrong feelings or emotions. Your child might become sad when you explain this, or also might appear ambivalent or flippant about it. That does not mean they are heartless and do not care, it just means that sometimes kids process information in different ways and different time frames. You might spend 15 minutes presenting your well prepared speech, and your child might say, "Wow, that is really sad." But then your child might move on and not talk about it again immediately. No matter what their response, it is ok. Just be prepared that your child might come back to you later once they have processed it and have more questions later.
6. BE PRESENT: Most importantly, be present for your child. Be the one that talks to them about this, and don't let them hear upsetting news at school or at a friend's house. Be the one they know they can come to when they are sad or upset about something difficult. If you are present, listen to their thoughts and feelings, and share openly with them about your own feelings, you will create authentic and loving moments of communication that will foster attachment and closeness to you, which is what your child needs most when dealing with life changes.
If you have any questions or thoughts or concerns and you would like to share them wth me, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jessi Robertson, MS, LMFT
Therapist. Mom. Writer. Consultant. Coffee Lover.