About a month ago, a friend of mine asked me if I would consider writing about how to talk to kids about illness and death. She thought this wonderful community might have tips to share with her as she prepares her kids—and herself—for saying goodbye to her mom. 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…and the preview I caught online while writing this had me sobbing uncontrollably! And 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.
Fortunately I have a wonderful friend who worked at OUR HOUSE Grief Support Center in Los Angeles, and she put me in touch with Lauren Schneider, Clinical Director of Child and Adolescent Programs. 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.
5) Give children an outlet for their grief.
While it may be easier for you to avoid talking about a passed love one with your kids, it can give them the impression that people come and go without warning and we just have to move on. Instead, give them a way to honor how special that person was to them. Encourage kids to draw, write letters, create a memory book and talk about what they’re feeling. There are a lot of great books that help children through the grieving process as well. (See some suggestions below.)
6) Don’t forget yourself.
When talking to Lauren, I found that I kept referencing my kids and my friend. She was subtle—but conscious—in bringing it back to me and acknowledging what I was dealing with. In her kind way, she was reminding me that adults need support throughout this process as well.
Below is a list of resources that can help you and your children as you grieve the illness and loss of a loved one. A special thanks to Lauren and my friend, Allie, who shared their time and this wonderful information with me. If you want more detail on these, please leave a comment and I can email you the OUR HOUSE handouts Lauren shared with me (I’ll be able to see your email address, no need to leave it in the comment).
If you live in LA and need support, you can contact OUR HOUSE Grief Support Center.
If you live outside of LA, the National Alliance for Grieving Children can offer local resources.
Books for Kids
The Two of Them by Aliki- A story of lasting love for a grandparent.
Freddie the Leaf by Leo Buscaglia- The seasons of the year are compared to the life-death cycle.
Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen- Explains life and death in a sensitive, caring way.
Books for Adults
Saying Goodbye to Someone You Love by Norine Dresser and Fredda Wasserman- Deals with how you process death, helps you have open conversations with loved ones at end of life. Also includes a section on talking to kids.
Death and Dying: Challenge and Change by Robert Fulton- A comprehensive overview of the intricacies of death.
Please share any experiences, words of wisdom or resources you might have by leaving a comment. We can all use a bit of extra support, insight and encouragement as we prepare to say goodbye to the people we love most.