Recently a friend of mine, preparing to say goodbye to her mom, asked me if I would consider writing about how to talk to kids about illness and death. I was honored that she'd trust me to start this conversation on such a personal topic, but also overwhelmed by what it meant: That I'd have to face the fact that I should be having some of these talks with my kids-and myself-as my dad struggles through his battle with brain cancer.
Plus what do I really know about talking to kids on these serious subjects? I recently taped a PBS/Sesame Street special about kids and grief, but could never bring myself to watch it (just the preview I caught online while writing this had me sobbing uncontrollably!). And recently Big overheard my husband and me talking about when my grandfather died-back when I was in college-and now he randomly asks me questions about my grandfather and dying. I'm often unprepared and, no doubt, say the wrong thing. So rather than share my fears, missteps and questions (of which there are far too many to include in one post), I figured I'd turn to an expert.
I was introduced to Lauren Schneider, Clinical Director of Child and Adolescent Programs OUR HOUSE Grief Support Center in Los Angeles. Lauren and I talked for quite awhile about my personal situation, as well as ideas I could share, should you ever be in this tough position. She was kind, candid and extremely insightful. Here's what I learned:
1) Use honest, plain language.
Personally I've avoided using the term "cancer" because it's scary to me. But by being general and simply saying Grandpa's "sick", my kids may worry that when they get sick, they'll have the same symptoms or even die. And though philosophical and religious language comforts adults, it confuses young children who are very literal. Rather than saying a loved one who has passed is in the ocean or sky, explain that their body has stopped working. They can't see, smell, hear or talk anymore. They won't be coming back and they can't feel pain. Rather than saying someone lives in your heart (which is what I did, so Big is likely visualizing a man in my heart), say you can still feel their love in your heart and remember them in your mind.
2) Address your children's fears.
Let your kids know that most people live until they're very old. And nothing they've thought, felt or said made this happen. Arguing and wishing someone harm doesn't cause illness and death. Let them know there's a plan for them to be well taken care of should anything happen to you (though of course you don't expect it to).
3) Include children in mourning rituals.
As your loved one is reaching end of life, consider inviting your children to draw a card for them to have at their bedside. Then, after they pass, invite your kids to join the family to "say goodbye for the last time". Use age-appropriate terms to explain what the children should expect at the funeral and answer any questions they might have. This allows them to feel close to the surviving family members and lessens their feelings of abandonment. In preparation for the service, consider including kids in picking out the flowers, making a collage, releasing a balloon, lighting a memorial candle, etc.
4) Accept children's feelings about death.
Your kids may be sad one moment, then running off laughing the next. This is completely normal. Also, it can take a couple years for kids to give up hope that the loved one is coming back. Throughout that time, new questions will come up. Continue to have an open dialogue using clear, honest language.
For more important tips and resources, visit Using Our Words.