12 Mistakes Parents Make When Talking to Kids About Death (Part II)

By Wendy Thomas Russell | June 21, 2012 | 8 comments

I’m back with again with my Grim Reaper friend. I like that little guy. Just wish he were more cheerful.

Anyway, in my last post I described six mistakes parents make when talking death with kids. Well, apparently, we screw up A LOT because here’s a whole other six:

7. We yada-yada over the science part.

Talking about decomposing bodies may seem a ghoulish proposition, but the actual science of death is not only fascinating to children (particularly preschoolers), but can be comforting, too. It’s true that adults tend to focus their worry on the emotional aspects of death — how it feels to lose someone we love, for instance. But children of a certain age aren’t as consumed by the grief aspect of death. They are still working on how things die (“Could I have caused it?”) and how it feels to be dead (“Will I be lonely?”) This is why it’s so important to explain to kids how we humans work — how our beating hearts are what keep us alive, and that there is a difference between bodies and consciousness.

“Most children understand the concept of something that has ‘stopped working completely and can’t be fixed,’” social worker Debra Stang tells us. “It’s also important to reassure children that a dead person doesn’t breathe, wake up, go to sleep, or need to go to the bathroom, doesn’t hear or see anything, doesn’t get hungry or cold or scared, and doesn’t feel any pain.” But do remember,adds parent coach Miriam Jochnowitz, there is a limit to how much science to impose on a child. “It can be helpful just to understand more about what happened,” she says. “But follow the child’s lead. Do not expound if they are not interested.”

8. We expect kids (and adults!) to react in a prepackaged way.

For most of us, grief has a certain look to it: tears, pain, prolonged depression. So when people react to death in a way that runs counter to our image, we think it’s strange. We assume something is wrong. We worry. And it’s no wonder — given the popularity of author Elisabeth Kubler-Ross‘ Five Stages of Grief, which was introduced in her book “On Death and Dying.” Kubler-Ross said that the stages were denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, and that most people go through one or all of the first four stages before reaching the last. Over the last 15 years, this hypothesis has informed how we, as a society, view children’s reactions to death, as well as our own.

The problem, according to modern studies, is that it’s all bogus. When it comes to the loss of a loved one, grief doesn’t work in “stages” at all. In his incredibly enlightening book, “The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss,” author George Bonanno says that resilience — not denial, anger, etc. — is what truly defines grief. His scientific studies, conducted over 20 years, show that most people weather the deaths of loved ones relatively quickly and thoroughly. Even weeks after devastating losses, many are able to experience genuinely positive emotions, even laughter. And this is not denial or drugs doing the work — but rather their own natural resiliency, Bonanno says. Personality has a lot to do with grief reactions, of course, and there are those who experience grief in the Kubler-Ross-created image. But, in general, studies show, grief has an oscillating pattern. It comes and goes in “waves” — which is what, mercifully, allows us to take care of ourselves and those around us.

At the risk of making this too long (I know, too late), I’ll just add this: Bonanno’s philosophy is that we humans are a lot more resilient than we think we are. We are hardwired to adapt, and that’s what we do. Most of us adapt much more quickly than we think possible — which is both good and healthy. No one should be surprised when a person finds joy and happiness soon after the loss of a loved one. “It’s okay to cry,” we tell our kids all the time. But sometimes we forget that it’s okay not to cry, too.

9. We forget to seek help

Sometimes we just can’t do it. No matter how much we want to, talking about death with our kids is a challenge we can’t face. Maybe we have suffered a particularly devastating loss recently, or maybe WE’VE JUST GOT SOME ANXIETY ISSUES, OKAY?! Whatever the reason, there is no shame is handing off the baton to someone (another adult, a therapist) or something (the Internet, the library) better suited to guide our children in positive ways. By showing our children that they have lots of resources and support available to them, we ensure that when WE aren’t around, they will still have their needs met.

There are some excellent books out there for broaching the subject of death with very young children. My personal favorite is still “When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death,” by Laurie Krasny Brown, which I wrote about here. But I also am crazy about an oldie called “About Dying” by Sara Bonnet Stein. It’s a book for kids and parents to read together, but also has some great information in smaller print off to the side. “When a Pet Dies,” by Fred Rogers, is also awesome (Did Mr. Rogers ever do anything that wasn’t awesome?) and “The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story of Life for All Ages” by Leo Buscaglia is also really nice. None of these books has a religious bent, by the way.

11. We’re afraid to say ‘I don’t know.’

No one, not one person in all of history, has ever known for sure what happens when we die. So why is that we parents have such a hard time admitting we don’t know? When it comes to death — and, frankly, religion in general — we sometimes feel we must be on one side or another in order to maintain stability and consistency in children’s lives. But this is one area where saying “I don’t know” will never be seen as a sign of weakness or ignorance.

What our children choose to believe as far as heaven/afterlife/reincarnation really has nothing to do with us anyway. We can state what we believe to be true, and we can state what other people believe to be true (to the best of our knowledge), but to think we are “teaching” them what happens after we die is kind of ridiculous. No one can teach it because no one knows. Telling our children we’re confused is okay. Telling them we keep changing our minds is okay, too. And throwing up our hands and telling them we haven’t got the slightest idea what’s going to happen — dammit, that’s okay, too.

10. We lie.

This one comes courtesy of a mother who responded to my survey earlier this year. “When it comes to death,” the woman wrote, “I have allowed my children to believe in a ‘heaven,’ for lack of a better word. I felt that allowing them to believe that ‘people go on to happy place surrounded by loved ones, waiting for other loved ones to join them someday’ gives them comfort about losing people. Heck, it comforts me to make up a place like that when I am grieving also.”

It’s not uncommon, as I said in No. 6, to gravitate toward the heaven narrative. Even nonreligious parents have a hard time with this one. But we can’t — as in CAN NOT — “make up” an afterlife and ask our kids to believe in it. This is just not cool. As author Earl A. Grollman says: “Don’t tell children what they will need to unlearn later.” There’s nothing wrong with wanting kids to know about all the “afterlife options” out there, but why not refer them to those who believe? A grandparent, perhaps, or a beloved aunt? By all means, there is no harm (most of the time!) in encouraging our kids to get religious input from other family members or friends, but don’t lie. The stakes are too high, the potential to hurt our kids too great. The litmus test is this: Are we telling our kids the same thing we would tell a fellow adult? If not, it’s time to come clean.

12. We don’t talk about dead people in happy terms.

After a person dies, the only thing we have of them is our memories. Yet so many of us don’t talk about dead people because we feel even our happiest memories lead us to melancholy. We assume the only way to avoid the painful end is to not begin at all. But honoring our dead and keeping them “with us” is part of how we cope with our losses. Suppressing those memories can deprive us of both joy and comfort.

Working Grandma’s favorite recipe into a mealtime, telling Grandpa’s favorite joke, or recounting the copious amounts of liquor Great Aunt Tilly used to consumed at Passover every year are all healthy ways of coping — not just with their deaths but with death in general. Giving memories of our dead a happy “place” among the living benefits us all. Especially our kids.


8 comments

  1. Karen says:

    It’s so nice to find a secular resource that isn’t “anti-focused.” There are many resources for rational thinking and atheism, but fewer resources for non-believers who are not looking to instill “anti-belief” in their children. Point #10, “we’re afraid to say I don’t know,” really struck home for me. Thanks for providing a resource for those of us who don’t presume to think we have the answers!

  2. Laurel says:

    I was just searching for grim reaper clip art and this site came up…what a lucky find! Our family is mixed, as in my husband is muslim and I am atheist (makes for interesting discussions w/the kids!)…so glad to have found this place!

    And your grim reaper is awesome, too.

  3. Karen Loe says:

    Another GREAT post.
    It IS necessary, as atheists or non-theists, to be so vigilant with the words we use with our kids. The myth stories are SO prevalent that they can creep into our conversations if we aren’t careful.
    Secular parents don’t have that lovely cushion of stories upon which to lay our pain. Instead, we learn and teach how to deal with pain and loss with honestly, love, and compassion.

  4. Tammy Hillen says:

    When my son was four, my father had a surgery that went badly. He had to have a second surgery, and we were told he might not survive it. My son and I were staying at a friend’s house to be near my parents. I had to call my husband and my siblings to tell them my father might die. I used those words, and I cried telling them. On the waupy to the hospital, my son asked, “mama, what does die mean?” i have a friend whose husband died unexpectedly when her children were young, so I’d heard the expert talk, and I used the real words and explained it. We had the same conversation numerous times over the next few days. Luckily, my father recovered. But my son’s exploration of death had just begun. He wanted to play “die” regularly. “mama, pretend I died.”. I couldn’t do it while my dad was in ICU. I knew I should, but I couldn’t. I did tell him I was too sad to play that right now, but would play it when we went home. When we returned home, and my father was in the nursing home, I was able to do it, and explore it with him. it was HARD!!! He’s 6 now, and he doesn’t play die anymore, but he does ask many questions, and we do ourbest to answer. I know Imiss the boat more than I would like, but starting off with honest answers really helped. Thank you for what you write. You give us great thought, new ways to approach these conversations. It’s so helpful!
    Thank you!

    • Thank you so much, Tammy. And that’s a great story to share. My dad was in the ICU a couple of years ago (when my daughter was 4) and I can totally see myself in that exact situation. You handled it perfectly. (So glad both our dads recovered!)

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Due out in March 2015, Relax, It's Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You're Not Religious offers a well-researched look at a timely subject: secular parenting. With chapters on avoiding indoctrination, talking about death, vaccinating kids against intolerance, dealing with religious baggage, and getting along with religious relatives, the book offers a refreshingly compassionate approach to raising religiously literate, highly tolerant and critically thinking children capable of making up their own minds about what to believe. The book may be pre-ordered by visiting Brown Paper Press.
 

      Natural Wonderers is a new blog hosted by Wendy Thomas Russell and published by the Patheos faith network. An extension of Russell's previous blog — Relax, It's Just God — Natural Wonderers offers stories and advice on raising curious, compassionate children in secular families.
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