Talking to kids about easy subjects is easy. Talking to kids about difficult subjects is difficult. Talking to kids about death feels daunting and almost impossible.
At least it feels that way for me.
It’s been seven months since my youngest brother, Paul, died. Emilia adored him, and I have yet to talk to her about his death. I mean, really talk to her about it.
Instead, we’ve communicated in cliches and platitudes, offering faith-based explanations that are helpful to us but fail to fully offer the information a 4-year-old needs to process, or at least begin to understand, what death is and what it means to her. I have given Emilia the bare minimum because, most of the time, that’s all I have to give. Finally, after months of avoiding her questions, I decided to seek guidance.
On the suggestion of a friend, I called Ted E. Bear Hollow. I had the good fortune to connect with Cathy Fox, program director. In just minutes on the phone, I felt understood, confident in what I needed to do and inspired by the fact that a place like Ted E. Bear Hollow exists here in Omaha.
Founded in 2001, Ted E. Bear Hollow offers free grief-support programs for adults, kids and teens, starting at age 3. Staffed by volunteers and led by Fox, a social worker who was once a volunteer herself, the facility doesn’t offer counseling or therapy. Instead, Fox and her team allow kids to grieve together and receive support in a peer setting. Kids with kids, parents with parents. They play, make crafts, talk, share a meal, learn about death and process their grief – together.
The hard truth is, all parents will be faced with this conversation at some point. Death is a part of life, and as the guides of our small people, we are responsible for making sure they understand the entire human experience. I asked Fox to help me come up with a list of helpful guidelines for talking to children about death and helping them cope with grief.
1. Be honest. “One of the biggest things I encourage parents to do is to be very honest and concrete,” Fox said. “We use the word ‘die’ here, and we’ll talk about causes of death very concretely. Some of the other ways people talk about death, like ‘passed away’ or ‘went to a better place’ are all very abstract and can mean different things.” Fox adds that religious explanations are helpful and important, but are more effective when paired with an explanation that pertains to the physical aspect of death, like when someone dies, their body stops working. Otherwise, children tend to think that a person is just on vacation or in another physical place.
2. Model healthy grief and coping. At Ted E. Bear Hollow, parents are encouraged to model healthy grief. “As adults, we feel like we need to hold things together, to be the rock for our family. But as a result, children learn to do that as well,” Fox said. Instead, she encourages openly showing emotion as a way of letting kids know that crying and other emotional reactions are normal and okay.
3. Encourage play. Kids play through their emotions. Younger children who lack strong verbal skills may engage in imaginative play, like acting out a funeral. Older kids may work through their emotions by drawing, building, journaling or playing a sport. As parents, we can encourage that coping mechanism by offering new creative outlets.
4. Answer questions in the moment. If a child asks a question about a loved one’s death, it’s likely that concern has been on the child’s mind for a while. Fox recommends answering questions and addressing concerns to the best of your abilities, as soon as they come up.
5. Offer reassurance. When children experience a death, they may begin to worry about their own safety or that of their loved ones. You can help by turning that conversation to the proactive things we can do to stay healthy and safe, like wearing seat belts, going to the doctor for checkups and eating healthy foods.
6. Participate in rituals and create your own. If you know a loved one is going to die, you can visit the person or make something for them. After a person’s death, consider bringing the child to the funeral. And in the months and years ahead, you can create rituals of your own, like a balloon release, as a way to remember and celebrate your loved one.
7. Remember that it’s never too soon to start talking. “The more you can deal with the concept of death early on, the better,” Fox said. The death of a pet can present a learning opportunity for kids. Young children can also begin to understand death through movies like “The Lion King” or children’s books like “Tell Me Papa” by Joy and Dr. Marvin Johnson. Ultimately, you don’t have to wait until a major loss occurs to address the idea of death with your child.
8. Recognize that the conversation isn’t over. Developmentally, kids need to reprocess their grief every couple of years. Be prepared to talk about a specific death, or death in general, periodically as a child develops.
Obviously, this is just the tip of a big, difficult iceberg. But places like Ted E. Bear Hollow exist to help make it easier. If you have any specific questions or concerns, you can call Ted E. Hollow at 402-502-2773 or visit tedebearhollow.com for more information on the organization and its programs.
Catherine Kraemer writes twice a month for Momaha.com. She and her husband, Matt, are the parents of two young girls – Emilia, 3, and Grace, 1. Originally from St. Louis, she lives in Omaha and works at a local advertising agency.