Telling a Child About Two Deaths in One Day

By Pamela Gabbay, M.A., FT —

My mind was simultaneously racing around in circles and dull as a knife. She’s only four… four. I could not fathom how I was going to tell my four-year-old daughter that her beloved grandmother, my mom, had just died.

Her grandmother, who called her “my little Meg,” and lovingly sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow to her;” her grandmother who swam with her and played hide and seek for hours. Four-year-olds don’t understand death. I don’t understand death. My mom was just 51. She had only been diagnosed with cancer two weeks ago and now she was dead. How could I tell my daughter?

As we pulled into our driveway, I noticed that something in our front yard was terribly wrong. At first, in my state of utter confusion, my mind could not, or would not, comprehend what I was seeing. I looked again, trying to understand. I slowly absorbed what was before me, what was so wrong. My much-loved cat, Bitsie, was dead in the front yard, apparently attacked by a large, neighborhood dog.

I was stunned when I realized the severity of the attack and how horribly Bitsie had died. Thankfully, my daughter was not with us! In the chaos and total heartbreak that ensued as a result of finding Bitsie, it felt like my mind was spinning out of control. I remember thinking; this must be what it feels like to lose your mind.

A few hours later, we were back in the car, driving to pick my daughter up. How could I tell her that both her grandmother and Bitsie were dead? I did not have any idea what to do next. In the midst of my anguish and despair, I decided that I needed more time to absorb all that had happened.

I waited three or four days before I told my daughter that her grandmother had died. Looking back, it feels like I waited an eternity to tell her. I did not tell her about Bitsie’s death until years later; at the time, I told her that Bitsie had run away. Bewildered, I did not know what else to do.

I know better now; children of all ages need to be told the truth. They should be told as gently and sensitively as possible and given honest answers to their questions. I often reflect back on this very sad time in my own life when I’m working with grieving families; families who are also bewildered and have no idea what to tell their children.

Pamela Gabbay, M.A., FT is the Program Director of the Mourning Star Center for Grieving Children in Palm Desert, California. She is also on the Board of Directors of the National Alliance for Grieving Children. If you would like information about finding resources for grieving children in your city, please visit the National Alliance for Grieving Children’s website at www.NationalAllianceforGrievingChildren.org.

Pamela Gabbay

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Pamela Gabbay, M.A., FT, was awarded the Fellow in Thanatology by the Association for Death Education and Counseling (ADEC) and is a Certified Bereavement Counselor. She earned her B.A. in Psychology from California State University, San Bernardino and her M.A. in Psychology from Claremont Graduate University. Pamela is the Program Director of The Mourning Star Center for Grieving Children in Palm Desert, California and works extensively with grieving children, teens and their families. For more information, please visit www.mourningstar.org. In 2008, Pamela and the Mourning Star Center were featured on the National Hospice Foundation of America’s Bereavement Teleconference Living with Grief: Children and Adolescents. Pamela is the Camp Director for Camp Erin - Palm Springs, the first Camp Erin in California. Camp Erin is a free camp for grieving children and teens created in partnership with The Moyer Foundation. Pamela is also President of the California Chapter of the Association for Death Education and Counseling. ADEC So Cal is an organization dedicated to promoting excellence in death education. She is on the Board of Directors of the National Alliance for Grieving Children. Additionally, she is co-owner of www.GriefPosters.com a poster company that produces sensitive and educational grief-related posters. Pamela appeared on the radio show Healing the Grieving Heart with Dr. Gloria and Dr. Heidi Horsley, to discuss Adult Children Losing Parents. To hear Pamela being interviewed on this show, click on the following link: www.voiceamericapd.com/health/010157/horsley111308.mp

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