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Talking to kids about death is one of the hardest conversations to have with your child, and yet it remains one of the most important.
"The word 'dead' is still a four-letter word," explains renowned rabbi, teacher, and author on grief Earl Grollman. People often to to great ends to protect kids from dealing with it; yet, he says simply, "we cannot protect our youngsters from death."
However, we can talk about it well. Like many other experts, Grollman says that when there is frank acknowledgment "we can try to find meaning, even in the face of great pain and loneliness.”
Grollman himself learned these lessons the hard way. When Grollman was fourteen, his grandmother died. Today, many decades later, he still looks back with indignation: “I come from a family,” he says, “where the word ‘death’ was never mentioned. And can you imagine this: that year my grandmother died, I also happened to be a state intercollegiate wrestling champion. But I was not allowed to attend my grandmother’s funeral because I was too ‘young.’”
Then, in Grollman’s early twenties, he enrolled in seminary to become a rabbi. His studies included how to write eulogies and lead classic prayers—skills he was asked to use in his very first week on the job. “The first funeral I ever attended,” he says today with a chuckle, “was the first funeral I ever conducted. To put it mildly, I had no idea what I was doing.”
Since then, Grollman has devoted the better part of his long, illustrious career to filling that gap. He has written 27 books on death, dying, and grief and has garnered an international reputation for his blend of scholarship and practical compassion. Despite all these years of advocacy, he says, the topic remains a fresh challenge for all of us.
So if your child is dealing with a death—be it a relative, community member, friend, or classmate—you, too, can expect some complicated feelings and questions. Grollman, and several other experts in the field, have some reassuring advice: parents can really help. Here are some of their key pointers:
- Tell the truth. No fairytales. "This may sound obvious, but if you’re faced with a heartbroken child, it can be all too easy to turn to platitudes like “Raymond went on a long trip.” If you say that, kids will just spend years wondering when he’s coming back. Instead, says Jennifer Allen, LMFT and author of the grief memoir, Bone Knowing, “Correct information builds trust.” Do remember, however, to go with the policy of “less words, less letters for less years,” and to use concrete images. Allen’s example: “There was a car crash and Uncle Jerry’s head got hit so hard, his brain can’t work anymore and he died.”
- Welcome questions. In our efforts to protect kids, we parents can make the mistake of pretending we know it all, but let’s face it: death brings up the unanswerable mysteries of life itself, like “Why do people die? Will you die soon, too?” First, and always, says Grollman, “Listen deeply. And then listen some more.” Honor the fact that for many of these questions, there are no complete answers. You might say, for example, “People die when their bodies no longer work right. No one knows when you or I will die. We hope, though, that we will all live a long and happy life.”
- Listen to all feelings without judgment. Especially if a child was close to the person who died, grief will include a panoply of feelings. In our own shock, we may be tempted to shut down these expressions, especially if they include uncomfortable reactions like rage--or even, in a few cases, relief. Don’t forget, says Grollman, that “every child needs to be listened to and heard in a nonjudgmental and accepting way. Angry thoughts do not make bad people.” Let’s say, for example, that a child screams out in fury. Avoid redirections like “oh no, don’t be mad, be grateful that little Sadie lived as long as she did.” Instead, mirror feelings matter of factly: “You feel furious that Sadie died and you don’t think it’s fair. That hurts.”
- Respect the grief process. Think of grief as “part of living…friendships can become closer with shared experiences, and life does go on and hearts do heal,” Allen says. One way to teach this? Be yourself, and let your child see some of your own healthy tears. Model your own self-understanding: explain to your child that your sorrow comes from care and connection. “I really loved Aunt Muriel,” you might say, “and right now I’m taking some time to feel sad that she’s not alive.” Remember, too, that especially if your child knew the dead person well, grief may pop up for years, and that’s not crazy at all—just human.
- Never suggest that your child “replace” a dead loved one. Especially if a beloved parent or sibling has died, everyone may hunger to fill the yawning gap left behind. Watch out, says Grollman, for those old admonitions like “Now you’re the man of the house.” This is an impossible burden for any child. Instead, he says, work hard to communicate that the surviving are unique and valued just for who they are.
- Allow kids to attend funerals…with support. “Being excluded,” says Judy Tatelbaum, author of the best-selling Courage to Grieve, “doubles the sense of loss.” You should, however, prepare a child fully for the event, and, cautions Allen, allow a kid to opt out if the whole thing seems too overwhelming. If a child does attend, she adds, “Be sure they have a support buddy--another adult who isn’t too caught up in his own grief.” Handled with gentle understanding, she says, “participation in death rituals helps kids to realize the loss, understand death, make closure with the support of their community, and begin integrating the loss.”
Even with all this wisdom, of course, any death can bring great pain and confusion to a child—as it does to us. As Grollman says after decades of counseling folks in grief, “death ends a life. It never ends a relationship…you don’t get over it; you live with it.” And in the end, he says, it is always worthwhile for us to help our children confront it. “Grief can actually bring people together if we let it,” he says. “After all, death is a fact. If we don’t tell our kids, who will?”
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