Talking to Young Children About the Death of Young Children

The front pages of newspapers show hearses lined up and the headlines talk of the mournful task of saying goodbye.  An eight-year-old child is quoted in a New York Times article, speaking of his six-year-old friend, Jack Pinto:

I used to do everything with him. We liked to wrestle. We played Wii We just played all the time. I can’t believe I’m never going to see him again.

America has had a collective experience of death over the past days. Amid the December skies and the festively lit Christmas trees in Newtown, Connecticut are the votive candles, the shrines, the stuffed animals, and the loving notes to the children and adults who tragically lost their lives on December 14th.

This shared and heartbreaking loss has spilled into all of our lives, whether near or far, whether old or young, whether we knew those who lost their lives or not.

For many of us, this collective loss has raised questions of how we talk about this the loss with children—from safety in schools, to killings, to death.

For some of us, this collective loss reminds us of the loss of our own children—as it does for me—soon after his birth years ago on a December day, not unlike today.  And I, like many parents in Newtown, faced the task of telling my five-year-old son about the death of his brother.

Before we talk to children about the death of a child, we have to try to come to terms with our own thoughts and feelings.  The death of a child is the ultimate contradiction—children are supposed to outlive us, children’s lives are just beginning, children are our legacy. In addition, there is a sense of loss of control. We know that we ultimately don’t have control, but we mask that reality with making plans and schedules that manage our minutes and days.  Finally, there are our beliefs—what we believe about death and life after death. It is best to think as intentionally as we can about what we want to say about the death of a child to children.

We also have to think about how we convey our feelings.  I learned that it was important to share my feelings without flooding my son—“I am very sad, but we will be okay.”

I know in my case, it was first and foremost most important to comfort my child, just by being together. As President Obama said in Newtown,  “we’ve pulled our children tight.”

Then it was important to listen. Preschoolers have very concrete questions—like do people get cold in the ground.  Children’s “why” questions concern themselves: Is it my fault?  No. Could this happen to me? We will do everything we can to stay safe.  And their questions aren’t just over in a few days. We have to keep the conversational door open for their questions to emerge over weeks and years.

Just as we have to accept our own feelings, we have to try to understand theirs, which may range from anger, to fear, to confusion, to seeming indifference. Giving children opportunities to express their feelings—by our writing down their words to giving them art materials to create pictures can be comforting.

Commemorating is key. We need to find ways to help children celebrate the loss of a child, as the children of Newtown are doing with their memorials that line the streets.

And finally, we need to help the children find ways to have the children they lost live on in their lives. Speaking at Jack Pinto’s service, a family friend Mary Radatovich spoke to his ten-year-old brother, saying:

Now he will be with you, Ben, for the rest of your life. Think of him every time you catch a football, hit a baseball, or hug your mom and dad.

It has been many years since my own very young son died—but we think of him often, especially on gray days like today when he was born. We have created a living legacy to him in how we talked to our children.

(Continue the discussion on our Facebook page.)