Parents ask me all the time, “What is the most important thing I should do for my child? How do I talk to them? What’s the most important thing about this whole process?” And I tell people over and over again, “The most important thing we can do for kids is to tell the truth.” Kids will come up with a story in their own head that oftentimes is worse than the story that actually happened to them. – Jill MacFarlane
Johanna Lunn: This is the When You Die podcast. If it has to do with death and dying, we’re talking about it. Today’s host is Kelley Edwards.
Kelley Edwards: On the When You Die Podcast today, we are talking about talking to children about death and grief. I am joined by Jill MacFarlane. Jill is the program director at a place called The Sharing Place, which offers grief support for families, children, and teens. The Sharing Place is in Salt Lake City, Utah. Hello, Jill.
Jill MacFarlane: Hi, thanks so much for having me.
KE: Oh, thank you. This is not an easy topic that you’re dealing with on a daily basis.
JM: It isn’t. I hear that all the time from people. How do you do what you do? That seems so complicated. But really, kids are so open and intelligent and articulate, they make my job easy.
KE: Let’s talk a little bit about The Sharing Place, itself. The purpose is to provide a safe space.
JM: Absolutely. The Sharing Place is a grief support program. We do not provide counseling or therapy in any form. We provide a safe place for kids to come together with other kids the same age, who have similar circumstances. And really, the whole goal of The Sharing Place is to make sure that kids do not grieve alone. We do lots of work surrounding emotional identification, appropriate emotional expression, learning coping skills, preserving memories. All those things are happening in our group, but our main goal is to make sure that no one’s grieving alone,
KE: Who comes to The Sharing Place? How does it start?
JM: Our only requirement is that kids come to The Sharing Place after grieving the death of a family member. Families are loosely defined. We do not define families for kids. And so, they come to us for all sorts of deaths, whether it be mom, dad, brother, sister, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, cousins, close friends, neighbors, whoever was a supportive person in that child’s life. Kids can come to our groups from ages three to eighteen years old. So, we really span that whole developmental piece for the kids. They can come to us at any point in their childhood. And we don’t have requirements for income or background or type of death or any of that, it is just strictly grief from death.
KE: When a child comes to you, everything that you do is also age appropriate, right? You break them into groups of their own age?
JM: Yes. And we do that specifically because we know that kids grieve differently as they go through different developmental levels. So, we want to put them in a group that meets their developmental needs. We know we’re not doing kids any good if we’re not using words and talking about concepts that they can understand, that they can assimilate appropriately, and be able to move through that process of where they were at that point in time.
KM: And it’s not just for the kids, either, because there’s parenting while grieving. Right?
KE: You help the parents get this subject out there. I think we talked about this earlier: the most important thing is normalizing.
JM: Absolutely. So, while our kids are in group, their parents all meet in a parent group. We separate the kids and parents on purpose, because we know everybody needs their own space to grieve appropriately, what’s developmentally appropriate. So, the parents spend a lot of their time not only focusing on their own grief and not feeling like they’re alone in their grief, but they talk a ton about, “How do we parent these kids? Is this a teenage issue? Or is this a grief issue?” There’s a fine line between those two things. It’s amazing to have other parents who are going through it, as well, to talk it through and get advice and bounce ideas off each other. We serve the whole family. We believe that at The Sharing Place we’re not serving kids appropriately if we’re not serving their whole family. So, we try to include that parent education in it as well.
KE: And as parents, the natural inclination is to protect the child.
JM: Yes. But we all know that that is not necessarily what you’re doing if you’re keeping it from them, or if you’re not allowing them to express themselves. So, parents ask me all the time, “What is the most important thing I should do for my child? How do I talk to them? What’s the most important thing about this whole process?” And I tell people over and over again, “The most important thing we can do for kids is to tell the truth.” Kids will come up with a story in their own head that oftentimes is worse than the story that actually happened to them. And I recognize that talking to kids about things like drugs, suicide, mental illness, all those things, that’s hard. But kids cannot process what has happened to them unless they know the truth about it. Also, there’s a good chance kids are smart in social media. And they may have cousins and families. And neighbors and school friends may have heard the truth. And they may find out the truth from someone else, and that can seriously damage them and create trust issues for the kids and their parents. You know, if you haven’t told the truth about the biggest thing that’s ever happened to them, well what else have you not told them the truth about? So, it’s important to tell the kids the truth, regardless of how hard that story is.
KE: How do you find the kids respond?
JM: Normally, the response is, “Oh, okay.” They just take it. They take it so gracefully. They need to know that you trust them with hard information, as well. We trust that you can do this, we trust that you can handle this. That’s a difficult question to answer because every kid has their own personality. But for the most part, kids just take it for what it is and say, “Okay.” Some kids may ask a ton of questions. And you need to answer those questions, honestly, as they come. And some kids will just take it as, “Okay, my dad died by suicide. I get it. Let’s move on.”
KE: I know you must get feedback from parents. And there’s probably a great range of how someone is when they first come to you, and how someone is when they’ve completed a program. I’m going to assume that relief is a big thing here.
JM: Yes, absolutely. We had a family this week who was finally able to tell their kids about the suicide. And it felt like a huge weight was lifted off the mom’s shoulders, because she’d been working so hard to keep the secret from these kids for so long. It was just a huge weight that we could finally talk about and what really happened and be able to move forward. When you add the complication of trying to keep secrets and hide things, that’s big and heavy to carry.
KE: Let’s talk a little bit about the words that we need to use. Do you have something that is a standard conversation or verbiage, such as words that we should make sure that we don’t use?
JM: The words that we always use in The Sharing Place are dead and died. We always need to say the words dead and died. If we’re using soft, kind words, like passed away, went to heaven, lives with Jesus, all those things, that can be really confusing, especially when we’re talking about very young children. I hear oftentimes from families that they’re worried that their four-year-old will become suicidal, because they’re saying all the time, I want to go live in heaven with Daddy. And it’s not that the child is suicidal, it’s just that they lack that developmental and cognitive ability to comprehend what heaven is. That it’s just like Disneyland, right? We can go to Disneyland, and we can come back from Disneyland. And if Dad went to heaven, oh, we could go to heaven. It’s so important that we use the words dead and died. If we can’t even say the words dead and died, then we have a real problem about processing what’s happened to us in the first place. We must be able to say those words, because that’s really what happened to our person, they died. The other thing is when talking about how somebody died, it’s important that we use words that kids can understand. Kids don’t understand complex medical terms. They don’t understand, “Diagnosis,” and things like that. So, I tend to talk about what happened to the body to make it stop working. For example, “Your grandma died from a heart attack, which means her heart stopped beating, and it could not move the blood through her body anymore. And that made her body stop working.” So that’s a very simple, concrete explanation of what a heart attack is, that a kid can understand. It’s important that we tell them what happened to the body and why the body died, so that they can understand that it wasn’t because of anything that they did. We have a classic story here at The Sharing Place: one of our families had their father die from a heart attack. And the family used the words, “His heart was broken, his heart was broken.” But little did they know that early that day, their eight-year-old daughter had gotten in trouble for not cleaning her room. And so, she felt that her dad was mad at her for not cleaning her room, and she caused the broken heart. If we had just explained what a heart attack was in words that she could understand, we would have avoided all the guilt and shame and heartache that this little girl had. Because there’s no way that she caused that heart attack. And it’s so important for kids to understand that cause and effect of something making the body stop working.
KE: I think kids have an understanding just through nature. There’s the dying of leaves or plants. Oftentimes, the pet is the first death that they’ve dealt with, when children come to you. Do they have that awareness, that basic awareness? Or do you ever have cases where they’re completely kept in the dark?
JM: There are some families, or some children, who are totally in the dark. It’s usually our very youngest children. Starting at age three, they just don’t have that concept of what dead means. It’s kind of an abstract term, right? You step on the ants outside and they’re dead, but that doesn’t really have cause and effect in your life. And so, it’s hard to understand. It’s usually our very youngest kids that have a hard time understanding that. So, for those kids, we repeat over and over again, “Death is when your body stops working.” Sometimes we have a child in that preschool age, and someone says to me, “Oh, sometimes kids are really verbal.” And the child will say, “My daddy died from cancer.” And I’ll just repeat, “Yes, his body stopped working,” because I’m trying to reinforce that his body stopped working. That’s what dead means.
KE: And does it become then a normal thing for them?
JM: Yes, it does. Younger kids are trying to understand what dead means and just what happened to them. And once kids get a little bit older, developmentally, like older kids in elementary school, they’re trying to figure out how things happen. And so, once you realize, “Oh, wait, if my dad died, that means my mom could die too. And that means my grandma could die. And that means my best friend could die.” And so, it does become a big subject for them this life and death cycle. Until it’s introduced to you in your life, it’s not a normal thing. That’s the other great thing about The Sharing Place: everybody here has had this happen to them. It’s a normal part of life. And usually, young kids haven’t had that happen. So, they just feel odd. They feel so out there, they’re alone. And The Sharing Place really normalizes that, that everybody is going to have somebody die at some point in their lifetime.
KE: And even with small children. Maybe you’ll have a group who are the same age, and some may have been there a little bit earlier than others. Do you find that those kids will help the newcomers?
JM: Yes, I think that’s the beauty of group work. It is “The Sharing Place.” We’re an open-ended program, so families can come to us when they want and stay as long as they want. So, in any particular group, I might have a child who is two months out of their death. And I might have a child who is five years out of their death. And there’s this natural mentoring process that shows them, “Wow, look how far I can go! And wow, look how far I’ve come!” It’s an incredible thing to watch when there are new families here at The Sharing Place, and they can’t even say the words, “My dad died.” And I have other families who’ve been here for a while who can talk about their person and remember their person, and they have those words and that comfort behind them. Because they’ve practiced it so much in The Sharing Place. And it’s such a neat environment to realize how, “I can do that, too. I can get there, too.”
KE: Not everyone has access to a Sharing Place. If you were to give advice to parents in terms of activities and things that they can do to help that process, what would be some things that you would suggest?
JM: The number one thing that I always suggest is to keep that person in your daily lives. Keep that door open to be able to talk about them. If we say, “Oh, you know, that’s too painful, I don’t want to put salt in the wounds,” those kinds of things slam shut the door on talking about our person. And that makes it hard for a child to process what’s happened to him. So, we can keep that person alive in every single day of our lives in simple ways. Like, if I cook spaghetti for dinner, I could say, “Wow, remember how much better your mom cooked spaghetti. She was way better at it than I am.” Just in little ways of keeping that door open, to allow kids to both remember their person and talk about their person. I recommend that all the time to everybody. And then, also, it’s important to follow the child’s lead. Sometimes they might not want to talk, and they might just be having a quiet day. And that is allowed. That’s okay. And so, follow your child’s lead on what they want and what they need. If they want to talk about their person, please talk about them. If they need a minute, please let them have a minute. One thing that we forget to do as adults is realize that kids can control their own emotions, if we let them. So, it’s important to follow their lead and let them have some control in a situation that they have no control over.
KE: And I think of how difficult it must be for a parent who’s also grieving along with them.
JM: I think that’s probably the hardest job on Earth: to parent when you’re grieving. When you are having a hard time even controlling your own emotions and just getting out of bed yourself. How do you get three little kids out of bed and off to school on time and keep their grades up and their extracurriculars going? It’s a really challenging job. So, I always tell parents, “Give yourself some grace. If you can do one thing that day, you’ve done one thing, and give yourself some grace and realize that this is hard, and you have permission for it to be hard.”
KE: What does a group look like? What are some of the things that they do within the groups?
JM: We always start our groups with what we call a check-in. We answer four questions in check-in. We say our name. We say the person who died. We say how they died. And then we answer a question that’s different about them every time. Like what was your person’s hair color? Or what was their favorite food? What is the ultimate birthday present you could ever buy for your person? We do check-in because it helps kids practice talking about their person, and that can be hard to do. It can be hard to say, “My dad died, and he died from suicide.” And so, if you can practice it in a safe place, like The Sharing Place, with other kids who are saying the same thing, it’s an amazing thing. So, we do check-in to practice talking about our person; to normalize talking about our person. And to set the tone for the night and help kids remember why we’re here at The Sharing Place.
We always do a structured activity as well. These activities are helping us with emotional identification, appropriate expression, and coping skills. So, we may do something like a journal entry for our person. Or we could write a letter to our person and burn it in our fire pit in the backyard. Or we could do some sort of art with our kids from memory preservation. Or we could make lumineers. Or we could do any kind of activity like that. Our activities are always around our memories of our person and our feelings and experiences. It’s some sort of expression of our memory or a feeling that we do. And then after we do that structured work, we always give kids free time to just play. Because we want them to just be kids with other kids who’ve been through what they’ve been through. And they do some incredible expression through their play. We know that’s how kids process in motion, so they just have free time. At our facility we’re lucky because we have a free-standing house. And every room in our basement is dedicated to a different form of play. We have a volcano room, which is a padded room, and we’ve got big yoga balls, and we have the big stuffed person. And that’s where we express those big feelings of grief. We can punch things without hurting people; we can have wild and crazy energy without hurting ourselves or hurting things around us. So, we use the volcano room a lot. We have an art room where we do lots of artwork, and we have a soft room where we have all our babies and dress ups. And then we have an active playroom with dinosaurs or Legos and trucks and things like that.
KE: There are two things that I’m taking from this: one is to follow the lead of the child. And then, to let them use whatever form they want to express themselves.
JM: Exactly, yep. Younger kids express grief with a lot of energy. I hear that a lot from families, who say they can’t get them to sit still. Or they ran around at the funeral like wild people. Emotions are big. And we know that as adults, we can feel those emotions in our bodies. But as adults, we have that emotional recognition. Kids don’t have that. So those big, huge emotions come out as crazy energy. And so, they need a safe place to run around and express some of that emotion that’s built up inside them.
KE: There’s a phrase that you’ve used a couple of times, which is emotional identification. What is that?
JM: The way we work with emotional identification at The Sharing Place, is recognizing what we’re feeling and why we’re feeling it. And then coming up with a coping skill to help us deal with that emotion. So, I’m feeling sad because my dad died. And I really miss him today. Or I’m feeling frustrated, because my mom couldn’t be at my choir concert at school. Or I’m feeling confused because I don’t really understand why my dad did all those drugs. We can have multiple emotions at one time. And sometimes it just comes out as, “I don’t know. I don’t know how I’m feeling.” Or, “I’m just angry. I’m angry all the time.” Well, maybe it’s not just all anger. If we can sort through the different emotions we have and tie them to something, that can help the kids really sort out a coping skill to help with those things.
KE: In terms of age groups, would you say that some process this a little easier than others? Do the older kids? Or the younger kids?
JM: Oh, that’s a tough question. You know, the younger kids process it so matter-of-factly, which I think is helpful. Little kids tell everybody. They tell the checker at the grocery store. “Yep, my mom’s dead.” And it’s just a thing, and they can just cope with it and talk about it and move on. However, as they get a little bit older, and they start to think about the whys behind it, it becomes more complicated for them. But teenagers also have this great resilience built into them that younger kids don’t have. It’s that they can see who they want to be, and they can make choices, dedicated choices, that little kids can’t. So, that’s a hard question to answer. I think every age group has their positives and negatives.
KE: And when you were talking about teenagers, you know there’s a whole other physical thing and emotional thing that’s going on just in being a teenager.
JM: Oh, yeah. Seeing a grieving teenager is rough stuff for sure.
KE: How do you help identify that, or is there a way to identify it?
JM: There really isn’t, because the range is wide for teenagers. And it depends on the personality of the child, their coping skills, their resilience, how the parents are coping. There are so many things that go into it that I can’t just say, “Well, teens do best with A, B, or C.” I think, when I say, “Follow the child’s lead and give them some control,” that especially needs to happen in the teenage years, we need to listen to what they need. And we need to back off on the advice giving of, “You should do what I know is gonna make you feel better,” right? Because, for those teens, no one knows what they’re feeling, and no one is like them. When we come in and we say, “I know just what you need,” they automatically get on the defensive and shut down all listening. So, if you can, follow the lead and then give control to any of these age groups: teenagers, whoever are the ones that need it most.
KE: And one of the things that I should have mentioned earlier, which I think is so lovely, is that you are very volunteer-focused.
JM: Yes, we are. Our program has one staff member in each group. We run about 25 groups a month at two separate locations here in Salt Lake City. I have one staff member that runs the group and does the admin work and all the documentation and such things. But I have about five volunteers in each of those groups under that staff member. And our volunteers are the ones who really sit with the kids and listen to the kids. They don’t do any sort of guiding or leading. Their main job at The Sharing Place is just to listen, they’re just there to ride along with that kid. We tell our volunteers all the time, “It does not take somebody special; it does not take letters after your name or a certain education.” What it takes is somebody willing to walk beside these kids. We’re not leading, we’re not guiding, we’re not pushing them off a cliff. We’re just simply walking beside them in their grief. And our volunteers do that in such a beautiful way. They show up for these kids every single week. It’s incredible to watch.
KE: I think that’s a lovely concept to anybody, even to parents who are also grieving. Walking alongside is a great image of a way to help.
JM: Yes, I love that. And I think it takes a lot of pressure off the people who are trying to help the griever. There can be so much pressure; you’re never gonna say the right thing to somebody to make this better for them. There’s not a perfect magic phrase to make them feel better. But if we can sit beside them and listen, what better gift can we give them?
KE: We hear that a lot, to just show up. Just be present. Does it matter what age?
JM: No, it doesn’t. The kids that come to group, even the little kids, they may not know my volunteers’ names. But they know, “Hey, wait a minute, where’s that one lady with the brown hair?” Because they know there’s going to be somebody here to play with them, to listen to them, and to talk about their person with them.
KE: It must be a very rewarding thing for you and for the rest of your group. When someone comes to you at one stage, at the beginning, and then to see that advancement and the progress. It’s got to be so fulfilling.
JM: It really is. Like I said in the very beginning, people ask me all the time, “How do you do this job? It’s so sad.” And it really isn’t. These families have sad stories. But it is not a sad job to walk beside them, because I get to see them start to smile again. And I get to see them share memories and to heal and to find a new normal. They’re never going to be the same person they were before this death happened. But to find their new normal and to be able to witness that is really a privilege that I get to do every single day.
KE: It’s so lovely. I am so grateful that you have some time here to talk, because it is, as I said, so important. And it’s something that is probably one of the biggest things that we see: that hopelessness in parents and the fear of hurting their child further. It’s so important, as we say, normalizing, listening, and talking about it. They also don’t have to wait until someone has died to start a conversation.
JM: Yes, I hate to break it to you and all your listeners, but no one is immune from this. You’re all going to experience this at some point in your life. And so, the more we can talk about it, the better. The more we could talk about grief and bereavement, the same the way that we talk about bullying or drug use or sex education, all those things, the more prepared our kids are going to be. Kids just in general have this sense of, “Well, that will never happen to me.” That’s why so many teenagers get in car accidents because they think they’re invincible. But the more we talk about it and prepare them for what’s coming, the more coping skills they’ll have in their toolbox for when those hard things happen.
KE: You’re seeing a big demand for this service as well. You’ve opened a second location, as you mentioned, and there’s a waitlist.
JM: There is a waitlist for our program. We consistently have a waitlist for our program. The statistics in Utah are that one in 14 children will experience the death of a person, a family member, before they turn 18. And we have a lot of kids in Utah. There are a lot of kids here. This statistic may vary from state-to-state, and that information is available for you. I think that it’s something that’s not going away. And the more that we can support kids and get them through this process in an appropriate way, the better. We’re currently working on opening a third location here in Utah, as well, because the demand is so high.
KE: Wow! Well, I want to thank you so much. I know that it is a busy thing for you. And I appreciate it, because it’s something that we all need to start looking at. I think that this will be very helpful for those who don’t have a sharing place to be able to go to.
JM: Thanks so much for having me. If I can just close with one thought: I like to tell everybody that I talk to about my work that grief is a normal and natural reaction to loss. And I think that’s so important for us to remember as parents when we’re talking to our kids. They do need to grieve. And I know it’s so hard to watch. And it’s so hard to go through and I’m not taking that away. But they should be grieving, they should have some sort of signs of grief, and that’s normal. And that’s okay. We have to be able to feel it to move through it. So, to protect our kids and try and hide them from it, well, we’re not doing them any favors, because we do want them to have a normal and natural reaction to the things that happened to them.
KE: Some good advice. Thank you, Jill, and good luck with the program.
JM: Thank you so much for having me.