I once lived with a cat named Gibson. He was a very social cat, well-known to all of the people and businesses on my block. I had reservations about letting him roam outside, but that was where he wanted to be and being quite a clever cat, he was good at keeping himself safe. But even the smartest and cleverest of cats is no match for a speeding car, and one day Gibson was struck while crossing the street.
Naturally, I was heartbroken. I loved this cat, and I wasn’t the only one. Besides neighborhood friends, Gibson had a fan in the form of a seven-year-old child, the only child of a close friend. But my friend, in trying to protect him, told him that I had sent my cat, “to live on a farm.” I was horrified. Not only at the lie, but I didn’t want the child to think I would just give away my cat.
I know that, as parents, we will do anything to protect our children, to save them from pain. But in trying to help, are we really hindering? No one wants to have the tough conversations. Death is the most painful loss we will know, so it is understandable to want to protect our children from this kind of suffering, particularly at an early age. But in the long run, wouldn’t it be better just to be honest?
Psychologists seem to think so. Whether it’s the death of a pet, a family member, or a friend, the prevailing belief among psychologists is that you should tell your child the truth, and sooner rather than later. The timing can help a child understand the tears and sadness that they will witness around the death. Honesty is important, as are the words you choose. Ambiguity is not helpful, as children have very active and vivid imaginations. So, to say Grandma is, “sleeping,” can leave the child expecting the dead to wake up. It can also make them fearful about going to sleep. Research has shown that children who understand that death is a part of life and is normal, inevitable, and final are likely to be better prepared for it, and better able to make sense of death when it happens.
It is also important to use the words “dead” and “died” instead of “passed away.” You don’t need to be graphic, but you don’t have to sugar coat it either. Experts also say that it is crucial to share your grief and allow the child to experience their own. We all grieve differently, and this applies to children, as well. Giving them information in small batches is a good way to allow them to process. This can be gauged by the questions they ask.
There are many resources to help you help your child. On the Psychology Today website, there is an article called “The Do’s and Don’ts of Talking with a Child About Death”. Or look for personal accounts, like this story of a father and his 3-year-old son in the days and months after his wife’s death. The Virtual Hospice site is a wonderful resource, as well. And books written for children are available, to help make sense of loss.
One of my favourite TV sources comes from beloved children’s entertainer, Fred Rogers. In an episode called “Death of a Goldfish,” Mr. Rogers finds his goldfish dead and decides to bury it. He talks about death in a very simple way. It reminds him, he says, of when he was a child and his dog Mitzi died. He explains his experience honestly, telling his audience that sadness doesn’t last forever.
“She got to be old and she died,” he says lovingly, admitting that it was painful. “I was very sad when she died because she and I were good pals. When she died, I cried.”
Death can be overwhelming for an adult, so it’s natural that parents would want to keep it from a child. The fact is, the unknown can take on a scary life of its own in the imagination and mind of the young and it is up to the parents to help them understand as best they can. In doing so, it not only brings comfort, but provides the tools to help them cope with the other losses that life will inevitably bring.
To read a the story of how a father of two coped with the loss of his wife—their mother—take a look at Diary of a Widower. For additional resources, the folks at talkdeath.com have put together an extensive list designed with grieving children and teens in mind.
Kelley Edwards is a freelance writer based out of Halifax Nova Scotia. She has a love of bad cats and good coffee.