Dr. Corinne Masur
Just before Halloween a mother came to our parent group with the disturbing news that a mom in her neighborhood had been killed in an automobile accident. After telling her 5 year old daughter about this, her daughter asked, “Can we still have Halloween? Aren’t we supposed to be sad?”
The mother in our group started to cry as she told us this story. She said she could barely think about the situation – it brought up such feelings of vulnerability for her. What if SHE were to die and leave her daughter? She began to think about what she should tell her partner about what her daughter likes and doesn’t like to eat, her daily habits, the morning and evening routines, and what time she should be in bed. She could not stand the idea of her daughter being without her.
There are certain subjects that are just so painful that we want to shield our children from them. And yet, as good parents, we know we cannot.
So how DO we explain to our young children about death? And how DO we tolerate our own feelings of vulnerability when we think of the possibility of our own deaths and the consequent unintentional abandonment of our children?
Both are so scary.
But young children are not as ignorant about this subject as we think. They observe the natural world and they know, as early as 2 or 3 that bugs die and animals die and in fact, they are very curious about the subject. It is not unusual for them to ask questions – lots of questions – about death.
Often it is harder for the parent to think about this than it is for the child. The parent knows the permanency of death – but the young child does not. And it is the parent’s job to educate their children about difficult subjects like death by telling children the truth – but in a simple way.
Young children – two and three year olds – know that things die. What they don’t know is that once dead, an animal or a person cannot become alive again. So when you talk to your young child, this is something to include – for example, you can say, “When someone dies they can’t breathe or eat or talk anymore. And once they die they cannot become alive again.” One thing NOT to say is that death is like sleeping. Parents are often tempted to say this. But death is not like sleeping and if children are told that it is, they may develop fears about going to sleep.
Sometimes, once the basic questions are answered the next question is: “Are you going to die, Mommy (or Daddy)?”
The parent’s job is to walk a narrow line between providing the child with the information he or she wants and causing the least amount of anxiety in the child. So, to answer the question about whether the parent is going to die, the best answer is “Not for a long long time and not until I am very old.”
Of course we all know that we cannot promise this. However, we want to reassure our children while also being as truthful as possible.
And what if the child says, “But so and so’s mommy died.”
Then we must reassure the child: “Accidents such as these do not happen very often and I try to be as careful as I can so I can be here to enjoy life and take care of you.” And also, if the child asked if they can still have Halloween, the answer is a resounding “Yes.” Children are reassured to know that life goes on after someone has died. Perhaps they WILL be sad from time to time, but that is OK too.
Stay tuned for more on this subject in the “Ask Dr. Fran” column:
Should children attend funerals?
What should a parent says when a child asks, “Will I ever die?”