Death is a difficult and sensitive topic to discuss with children. So often adults feel at a loss for words. Without knowing what to say or how to say it, many parents and professionals avoid children’s questions. Some refuse to respond at all. Eight-year-old Alice explained a disturbing event. She told her teacher about her dad’s death during the very first week of school. Her teacher never said a word. Infuriated and saddened, Alice asked over and over, “Why didn’t my teacher ever say anything back?”

Often girls and boys share how angry and alone they feel at being dismissed or ignored when asking questions about the death of a loved one. “Where did my Mom go?”  “Why did Dad have to die?” “Did my doggy suffer?” “Will I die too?” are very common thoughts for girls and boys to have.

Responding with care can normalize children’s uncomfortable ideas and feelings. Acknowledging their questions is a valuable tool to reassure them and help them feel safe.

Honoring children’s questions

We may feel terrified when confronted by a child with a question about death, and send a conscious or unconscious message inhibiting further discussion. When adults respond to questions in ways that are more complicated than necessary, children can become overwhelmed. When adults limit replies or refuse to answer, kids get the message. Death is a closed topic – don’t ask again.

Joey’s mom wanted to know “What to I do when my-five-year-old asks so many questions about death?” One health care professional responded to Joey’s mother in this way. “My daughter Emily is five. She also asked too many questions about death. I explained to her she could only ask two questions a day. If she asked more than that she would need to go to her room for a half hour and think about it. This really worked. Within one month’s time Emily never asked another question about death.” Emily got the message in no uncertain terms – stop asking about death.

Placing restrictions or discounting children’s questions will work to extinguish asking them. Our goal is to create an environment where all questions are welcomed, accepted, and responded to openly and without judgment. The purpose of this book is to share simple and direct dialogues about death to facilitate open communication.  Comfortable language is a useful instrument for all caring adults to share appropriate responses that are satisfying to young people.

Developmental understandings

Children re-grieve at different developmental stages. During early childhood they are usually satisfied with a simple definition and explanation. They see death as reversible and have egocentric ideas involving magical thinking. Many times they believe they caused their person’s death.

As they get older they become more curious about the facts of the death, and may come back at ages 8, 9, and 10 and re-visit the death with new interest and inquisitiveness. In pre-adolescence and adolescence they approach their strong need to look to their own age group to find answers.

At this age girls and boys begin to see death is not reversible. Life is finite. Young people begin to form their own spiritual belief system and look to their peers for support and understanding. They feel empowered to become advocates for causes related to their person’s death.

Responding to a Question

Children need to be told the truth about a death in an age appropriately way. They usually know when they are being lied to. So often lies create a secondary loss of the trust of their emotional environment.

There are many ways people die. Often adults have difficulty in finding the precise words to use to explain a fatal Illness, sudden accident, murders, suicide, or natural or man made catastrophe. They are surprised when many girls and boys are satisfied with simple and honest responses appropriate to their developmental stage. Six-year-old Rebecca asked, “How did mommy die?” “She got very sick.” might be just enough of a response.

Excerpted from Great Answers to Difficult Questions about Death: What Children Need to Know. Linda Goldman Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2009

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Linda Goldman

Linda Goldman has a Fellow in Thanatology: Death, Dying, and Bereavement (FT) with a Master of Science in counseling and Master's equivalency in early childhood education. Linda is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor and a National Certified Counselor. She worked as a teacher and counselor in the school system for almost 20 years. Currently, she has a private grief therapy practice in Chevy Chase, Maryland. She works with children, teenagers, families with prenatal loss and grieving adults. Linda shares workshops, courses and trainings on children's grief and trauma and teaches as adjunct faculty in the Graduate Program of Counseling at Johns Hopkins University and King’s University College in Ontario, Canada. She has also taught on the faculty at the University of Maryland School of Social Work/Advanced Certification Program for Children and Adolescents and lectured at many other universities including Pennsylvania State University, Buffalo School of Social Work, University of North Carolina, the National Transportation Safety Board, the University of Hong Kong, and the National Changhua University of Education in Taiwan as well as numerous schools systems throughout the country. She has taught on working with LGBT youth and working with children's grief and trauma at Johns Hopkins Graduate School, the University of Maryland School of Social Work and the Child Welfare Administration. Linda is the author of “Life and Loss: A Guide to Help Grieving Children” and “Breaking the Silence: a Guide to Help Children with Complicated Grief”. Her other books include “Bart Speaks Out: An Interactive Storybook for Young Children On Suicide”, “Helping the Grieving Child in the School”, and a Chinese Edition of “Breaking the Silence: A Guide to Help Children With Complicated Grief”, the Japanese Edition of “Life and Loss: A Guide to Help Grieving Children”, and "Raising Our Children to Be Resilient: A Guide for Helping Children Cope with Trauma in Today’s World" and a children’s book “Children Also Grieve”, Chinese translation of “Children Also Grieve” and “Coming Out, Coming In: Nurturing the Well Being and Inclusion of Gay Youth in Mainstream Society”. She has also authored contributing chapters in resources including Loss of the Assumptive World (2002), Annual Death, Dying, and Bereavement (2001-2007), Family Counseling and Therapy Techniques (1998), and The School Services Sourcebook: A Guide for School-Based Professionals (2006). She has written many articles, including Healing Magazine’s “Helping the Grieving Child in the Schools” (2012), “The Bullying Epidemic, Creating Safe Havens for Gay Youth in Schools” (2006), “Parenting Gay Youth” (2008), “Talking to Kids About Suicide” (2014), “Helping Kids Cope with Grief of Losing a Pet” (2014) and “What Complicates Grief for Children: A Case Study” (2015). Some of her articles on Children's Grief and trauma have been translated into Chinese for the Suicide Prevention Program of Beijing. She appeared on the radio show Helping Gay Youth: Parents Perspective (2008) and has testified at a hearing before the MD Joint House and Senate Priorities Hearing for Marriage Equality (2007) and the MD Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee for the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act (2008).

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