Talking About Death with a Child

Yesterday, Olivia and I went to a birthday party in New York City. Before that, we went to gymnastics. Between all the travel and activities, we spent nearly the entire day together. Olivia has been, since she could form words, a constant talker. So a full day with her is like a month’s worth of conversations with your average friend.

We had some funny discussions, including the following gem about the Avengers:

“I don’t like Bruce Banner but I like the Giant Hulk. But sometimes I’m scared of the Giant Hulk because he’s very angry and his friends don’t always help him to calm down.”

“Daddy, what is a bad guy? How does someone become a bad guy? Do bad guys have friends?”

Finally, she saw a poster for Aquaman and asked me who it was. I told her, and added that he was an extremely fast swimmer.

“Faster than you daddy? Who would win in a race?”

I’ll hold on to “my daughter thinks I could compete with Aquaman” for as long as I possibly can.

Also, and often without warning, she wants to talk about really deep, emotional topics. She was reading a book in the car that my father, her “farfar” (Danish for father’s father) had given her. When I remarked about him giving it to her as a present, she strongly denied that.

“NO!” she exclaimed. “Farmor [father’s mother] left it for me after she died”. With that, the seal had been broken on talk of her dead grandmother.

“I wish she could play with me right now”

“It’s not fair that she died. She should be alive so I can see her”.

It’s been two years since my mother passed away. Olivia was just barely three then, and already most of her memories of her grandmother have faded. Often when Olivia brings her up, she asks me to remind her of memories she should have.

At the point my mother died, she was the grandparent that Olivia had seen more than any other. We lived in Denmark and despite her illness (she had a brian tumor diagnosed when Olivia was less than a year old) she visited often.

My mother’s death meant that we had to figure out how to talk about it. So, here, in no particular order, is what I’ve figured out to do so far.

Tell The Truth (but not all the details)

All of these suggestions are useful not only for talking about something serious as death. You want to avoid lying to your children as much as possible. A fantasy like Santa is fine in my book, but when it comes to more serious stuff, you have to tell the truth.

In our case, we faced the challenge of not really being religious. So any kind of talk of after-life or “she’s in a better place now” would have been totally inauthentic. I also wanted to avoid the verbal 2 by 4 of “she died of a vicious brain tumor in a hospice home”.

So, Kate and I told her that farmor died because she was sick. That although a lot of people get sick and don’t die, farmor couldn’t get better. The doctors tried to help her but they couldn’t and she died. We told her that we cannot see farmor anymore.

I remember telling her for the first time. I got the news that my mom died at 1 in the afternoon. I was due to pick up Olivia from school later that day. I managed to avoid breaking down at the school. We walked home and I sat her down. I was crying- she asked me why. I told her that farmor died and that I was sad.

She embraced me and we stayed there, hugging and crying, for however long. Then, she tried to cheer me up by playing a joke she knew would make me laugh. I went with it and moved on, only adding one thing:

If you ever want to talk about it, we can

It was uncomfortable to talk about my mother’s death with Olivia. She asked the same questions over and over again. it seemed every month she wanted the details played back to her, and then every now and then she came up with a new question.

But we stuck to our guns, and told her that she could always talk to us about it. We never wanted her to experience our discomfort and let it stop her from seeking to talk about it.

One of the hardest things to discuss was that my mom had her body cremated and her ashes spread in the harbor outside our Danish Summerhouse, her favorite place in the whole world. When Olivia asked where her body was now, we told her that she was in the water outside the summer house.

Being a literal thinking little kid, Olivia pictured her grandmother floating in the middle of the water, and grew very concerned that we had just left her there.

Mirroring and labeling

One of the most important things you can do for your kid are validation and labeling. I wish someone had done it with me growing up.

Mirroring is simple: when they can name their emotion or experience, validate it by repeating back to them what they are describing so they know that you hear them. So for example, when Olivia told me it wasn’t fair that farmor died, I told her “yes, it is really unfair that farmor died”. In that case I cosigned the feeling because I shared it, but you don’t necessarily have to do that.

Labeling is really important for little kids because they can often express their emotions clearly but often can’t put words to it.

So again, with the “not fair” example, I helped Olivia to label that feeling. Often that feeling of “not fair” is associated with anger. So I asked her if she was angry. She said yes.

Thought Anticipation

Kids’ minds are incredibly creative and are constantly building new thought infrastructure. Therefore, when they are trying to work through something difficult, they will often create new worries to match the worry they feel from the difficult event.

Again, an example: Olivia’s mind in this case became extremely concerned that getting sick meant that you might die. We gave a lot re-assurance that Olivia would not die the next time she got a cold, and that she shouldn’t worry that her mom or dad would pass away from their next illness.

It was also, for a period of time, very painful for Olivia to see farfar. She could not express it at all, but she avoided him. I guessed that this was because seeing him reminded her of farmor, and that reminder was very painful. Like any human being, she sought to avoid pain.

Oh yeah, and hugs. Lots of hugs

When all else fails, hug early and often. A lot of these conversations take place in an embrace, where Olivia (and I) feel a lot safer to express what is going on with either of us.

I don’t pretend that we’ve done everything perfectly, but the process has taught us a lot that we wish we’d known at the outset. So hopefully this blog will help you when you cross the same path.