It’s a moment no parent wants to experience: In my daughter’s folder was a sealed letter from the principal. The words “tragedy” and “loss of life” jumped out at me, and I felt a knot build in my throat as my daughter watched me read.
As I read more carefully, I felt at first relieved, then slightly guilty at my own relief, as I realized that the family affected was not part of my daughter’s classroom.
So I set the letter aside, believing that my daughter wasn’t going to be affected by what had happened.
But grief and loss, as it turns out, aren’t that easy to set aside. And as parents, if we choose to turn away from these topics, we risk doing our children a disservice.
Facing the tough questions
“In general, in American culture, we’re so uncomfortable around death,” observed Tara Hempel, a pediatric bereavement specialist with The Community Hospice. “If we can model to children that we are comfortable talking about death, it gives them permission to ask the questions they need answered.”
And children often have a lot of questions — which can hit when you least expect it.
“With young children, it comes out a lot at bedtime, when they’re processing their day,” observed Stacey Angell, a counselor at Shaker Junior High School in the North Colonie Central School District.
Older children and teens might look for different opportunities to talk — like when you’re riding in the car together, says Sara Salitan-Thiell, a social worker for North Colonie schools.
“When they don’t have to look directly at you, they will all of a sudden throw something at you,” Saltan-Thiell noted.
As disconcerting as it can be to get blindsided with big questions, Tara Hempel reminds parents that children often just want to confirm of what they already know, feel or believe.
“A lot of times, children already have an answer in their mind, and they’re really asking, ‘Is this correct?’”
Reflecting the child’s question back to them, and hearing what they have to say, can be easier than trying to come up with the perfect answer to questions like, “What happens to someone after they die?”
Tell it like it is
While it may feel like a kindness to use vague terms like “went to a better place” or “passed away,” counselors recommend avoiding these expressions, especially with very young children.
“If you use a vague term like ‘We’ve lost our aunt,’ kids even through age 11 can think that person might be coming back,” cautioned Susan Sloma, pupil personnel director for Berne-Knox-Westerlo Central Schools.
And sometimes, a choice of phrase can even cause children to develop new fears or worries.
“Some families choose to tell children that a loved one ‘slipped away’ in their sleep, but then we find that children have a hard time sleeping, or now they’re afraid to let their mom or dad go to sleep, because they think that’s how people die,” explained Tara Hempel.
As uncomfortable as it may be, using concrete language can help them children better understand and come to terms with what has happened.
Ride the waves
Even if your child isn’t grieving the loss of a close friend or loved one, exposure to death can still bring out powerful emotions — which can be as unsettling to your child as it is to you.
“Sometimes it triggers other losses — and not just death,” Sara Salitan-Thiell said, adding, “It doesn’t have to make sense to us, but the feelings are real for the child.”
And Susan Sloma reminds parents that there is no timeline or framework for grief — it is by its very nature unpredictable.
“The way children grieve may look different from how an adult grieves,” Sloma said. “They may ask a lot of questions, or they may want to be left alone.”
The key, Stacey Angell said, is to follow the child’s lead and let them know you’re there for them, no matter what they’re feeling.
Will this happen to me?
When it’s another child who has died, conversations with children can be particularly difficult.
‘It’s not the normal course of things that young people die,” Sara Salitan-Thiell noted. “So it leads to all sorts of fears for a child: Could I die, could my close friends die?”
And, Salitan-Thiell added, that fear is sometimes expressed in other ways: as anger, sadness, worry or a need to control their surroundings.
“It might be a little kid who’s now only willing to color in a certain color, or doesn’t transition easily from the classroom to P.E.,” Stacey Angell described, “or it’s a teen who’s withdrawing from social activities, or feeling anger, with thoughts of, ‘It’s not fair that someone so young has been taken away.’”
The challenge for parents, Tara Hempel notes, is to balance the hard truths of reality with the context of how rare or uncommon such incidents really are.
“Unfortunately, young people and children do die, but we don’t want our children believing there’s a big chance they can die too,” Hempel said.
The balance, Hempel explains, comes in being honest and meeting whatever questions a child may have.
“We can’t promise that nothing’s going to happen to a child, or to Mom or Dad,” Hempel said, “but we can talk about how rare a disease is, how uncommon it is for someone to be in an accident.”
As outlandish as children’s fears may seem to us, it’s important not to brush them off, Hempel says.
“Saying things like, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it’ is very dismissive. No child is going to be like, ‘Oh, OK!’”,” Hempel explained. “What happens instead is they keep thinking about it, but they’re learning, ‘I guess I can’t talk to Mom about that.’”
Instead, Hempel suggests, talk things through with your child to meet their fears head-on. If your child is worried about fire, for example, take a minute to map out their escape route, or make sure they know what to do if they hear a fire alarm.
“Talking about those scenarios is really, really helpful,” Hempel said.
Asking for help
Although it’s normal for children to experience sadness, anger, frustration and other feelings when coping with death, parents should reach out for help if the child’s symptoms of grief seem extreme or prolonged.
Parents who see any significant change in a child’s behavior — particularly those that are affecting the child’s eating or sleeping habits, or grades in school — are encouraged to contact their child’s school counselor.
“Grief is one of those topics where a school professional can be really helpful,” Stacey Angell noted, adding, “As school professionals, our job is not to take the hurt away — it’s to empower them, and help them develop the skills they need.”
And if a child is thinking about self-harm, that’s an immediate red flag, the counselors agreed.
“If a child is talking about suicide or hurting themself, it’s really important to reach out to a professional counselor,” Susan Sloma said.
Since receiving that letter in my daughter’s folder, I’ve had a few conversations with her about death — and I’m sure they won’t be the last ones they have. But I’ll face them a little more bravely now, knowing that the best thing I can do for her is follow her lead and let her know that all her questions are safe to ask.
The following resources can help parents support children of all ages through grief and loss:
Emily Popek is a public information specialist for Capital Region BOCES. She lives in Otsego County with her husband and their daughter.