Every day, as I drive around running errands, I listen to my local NPR station. Not infrequently, the news will discuss and detail suicide bombings, murders, and horrible accidents. The phrase, "leaving [X] dead and [X] injured" is heard almost daily. My children are blissfully well-behaved in the car and so, honestly, I didn't think too much about what they're hearing on our drives until the other day, when my 4-year-old responded "They died? Like, actually died?" It was in that moment that I was forced to think, "Oh crap, how do I explain death to my child?"
Sadly, my son has had experience with death in the past. My brother died last summer, and while my kid understood that death means we don't get to see our loved one again, at three years old, he only grasped enough of the concept to gain a familiarity with the term. So now, every time we hear about someone dying or being killed, we use that first experience as a jumping off point to build upon knowledge of what death actually means. It is not at all easy. First off, it's painful to remember all of the past death's you've experienced when helping your children gain new understanding each and every subsequent time. Secondly, it's hard not to have all the answers. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly: death is a bummer. A creepy, unsettling bummer. It's mentally and emotionally draining to have to explain to your kid that the world is full of death and it's unavoidable. Like, I would much rather talk about what's going on in the latest episode of Sesame Street.
Explaining death to my child (and, woo hoo, I have a two year old that I'll get to do this with again just around the time my oldest will realize that death is universal. Score!) has been a bit of a learning experience. It's also an obligation I take very seriously, and one I want to spearhead, instead of leaving the "lesson of death" for someone else to teach. I also realize that, well, my kid is going to look to other people and get in discussions with other people that I am powerless to avoid or control. As such, I have established some rules for talking to my child about death:
Don't: Talk About It At All
This is probably the best and easiest rule of thumb. Discussing death is one of the Big Important Talks (or, more likely, series of talks) parents will have with their children and everyone's approach is going to be very personal. A family's beliefs and values, the child's age, experiences, personality and specific details related to how the person passed are all potentially relevant factors that will dictate what a parent will want to convey and discuss. This is big time parenting I'm talking about here, folks. It's why, if you're a parent, you shouldn't avoid it and why, if you're not a parent or not the parent of a kid who is asking questions about death, you shouldn't chime in.
Don't: Talk About God One Way Or The Other
If you are somehow trapped in a situation where you, for whatever reason, cannot escape having this discussion with a kid, don't bring up issues of spirituality. Not all families are religious or believe in an afterlife or deity. Many others do, but differently than you do. Imagine how confusing it would be for a little kid who has not had any religious instruction whatsoever to hear,"Grandma is with Jesus and God in Heaven right now." Whoa! Who's Jesus? What's up with this God person? Where's Heaven? Do we drive or take a plane?" Or randomly told a kid that their beloved relative would has been reincarnated. All of a sudden you're changing the narrative. Religion and spirituality, like death, is one of those "Big Conversations" that should only be handled by parents. You mean well, but you may wind up crossing lines and confusing matters.
Don't: Unload Your Own Grief Onto Kids
Death is hard on those left behind, and for some it's even harder not to pour your heart out to the nearest set of ears. That's not to say you can't be completely honest about your feelings with children, but be aware that, in mourning, things can go very quickly from, "I feel so sad" to, "Let me talk about my specific fears of death and sorrows while you play the role of my therapist." Don't get morose with a child. You don't have to be Mary Sunshine, but try not to be Morticia Addams, either.
Don't: Inform Them That They Are Going To Die
This is a basic fact of life, but for some kids it's going to be completely new information and an absolutely horrifying realization. Children's reaction to death and dying depends largely on their age. They may "know" what death is when they're toddlers, but it doesn't cross their mind until they're about 7 that death is universal and that they will die. Speeding along this process is not always helpful.
Don't: Get Into The Gory Details
If you don't have to deal with the nightmares that will occur after you talk about a gristly car crash scene or the idea that grandpa is decomposing, you really shouldn't bring it up. You can be honest with kids, but it's still a pretty good idea to shield them from some of the scary details.
Don't: Tell Them That What They Think Or Believe Is Wrong Or Stupid
This goes back to the whole spirituality aspect of things. If you have very clear ideas of what happens after we die, great. However, don't contradict what a kid is saying they think happens. Even if it's doctrinally different from what you believe, one way or the other. Don't interject with a, "Well, actually..." That is, unless they say something completely outlandish and detrimental that is causing them anxiety or an unnecessary amount of fear. Like, "Daddy died and now I'm going to die tomorrow if I don't eat my vegetables!" In that case and cases like it, you can assure them that they'll be fine.
Don't: Push Them To Feel Any Particular Way
The way that children mourn is psychologically very interesting and varies based on age (among other things). Sometimes it can be upsetting to see a child seemingly unaffected by the passing of a beloved family member, especially when you might feel absolutely gutted. Keep lines of communication open, watch for behavioral changes, but trust that they're handling this in their own way. Remember: don't make how they act or feel about you.
Don't: Get Frustrated When They Don't Get It
Because sometimes children cannot understand death. Like, at all. Or, instead, they understand it in such a bizarre way that it bears no resemblance to how it actually works. It's not you,trust me; you explained it all very beautifully. It's their kid brains. They're still growing.
Do: Assess What They Know
Answer their questions with this very useful parenting hack and essential starting point of, "What do you think?" Not only does this buy you some time to think about what you're going to say, but you get a sense of where they're coming from, which helps you frame your response more effectively since you'll be working off their own knowledge base. Guys, "What do you think?" is the greatest of all questions.
Do: Be Honest When You Don't Have An Answer
Sometimes not being able to give an definitive answer can leave adults feeling vulnerable, stupid, or useless. Rest assured: it's okay not to know everything. No one does. Besides, they're going to figure out we don't know everything by the time they're teenagers, anyway. May as well set precedent now so they don't realize it all at once at 13 and then rebel against us with the full fury of their hormonal power.
Do: Let Them Know That You Are Sad And Scared, Too
Because no matter the age, mourning the dead is about taking comfort in the living all around you. Being vulnerable with a child is one of those tremendously difficult and painful things that will enable you to form a closer bond with them.