Talking to Your Child About Death – Step Two: Let Them Have all of Their Feelings

4ee067aef072d9c73cba_c8cb76d946d9659bdfd6_Corey.jpg
Corey Wisler, Imagine Program Assistant
4ee067aef072d9c73cba_c8cb76d946d9659bdfd6_Corey.jpg

Feelings with a Capital "F"

I have seen adults go to extreme lengths to keep children from experiencing negative emotions, like anger, sadness, confusion, and anxiety. We hear such stories on TV – they can be almost comical, like the always popular “replacing the dead fish with a new one” storyline or the “the dog lives on a farm now” plot - but in the end the adults usually have to tell the truth, the difficult stuff is glossed over, and the episode ends with a group hug.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in the TV world. We live in the real world where feelings are messy, yucky, and complicated. And protecting your children from difficult experiences is not a storyline; it’s a real issue that families deal with.

Sign Up for E-News

It is understandable that adults want to protect children. It is our natural instinct. Having to tell a child that someone they care about is dying or has died is one of life’s most difficult situations. Still, we know that loss is an inevitable part of life, and learning how to handle the feelings that come with loss is immensely important. Adults must learn to let children have all of their feelings.

Emotion-phobic culture and childhood development

Generally, when someone is sick and dying, we have a lot of feelings. These feelings fall under the umbrella of “grief” because they are related to a loss. Our feelings range from sadness to anger to relief. All feelings are normal, but often we do not verbalize them. They remain stored inside, gnawing away at us. The feelings build up and either explode out in a culminating moment or leak through into our day-to-day interactions.

This is a typical approach to emotions in our culture. However, we do not start out this way. At the beginning of their lives children do not know which emotions to hide and which to show. As children develop emotionally and socially they learn social norms, which are accomplished through observation and trial and error.

Learning social norms can be confusing for children when death becomes part of the conversation. Take, for example, the case of a four year old child listening to their daddy and a family friend talk about the mother’s recent diagnosis. The cancer has spread and is now inoperable. The doctor informed the family that chemo is not working and it may be time to consider palliative care. The daddy lowers his voice and huddles closer to the friend, sharing the news.

The message the child receives: Why did the grownups start whispering when they began talking about mommy’s cancer? Is cancer a scary word? Is it a bad word? Should I not talk about it? What is ‘terminal’? Why is it scary?  

Next, daddy starts crying. The friend offers a hug, which daddy briefly accepts. Then he starts wiping his eyes, says “I’m sorry,” and begins to joke about sports.

The message the child receives: Is crying bad? I have to say sorry when I do something wrong. Is it bad to cry about cancer? Cancer is scary and I cry when I am scared! I should not cry when I am scared. Instead, I should make jokes about sports.

All communication is a message about our emotions and beliefs. Children absorb these messages, but do not have the capacity to deeply analyze their meanings. Children do not develop abstract thinking until around age 12, so up until then they are processing information in a very concrete way. Processing difficult information, like the fact that their parent may die or has died, is cognitively challenging. Death can feel more like abandonment, therefore igniting feelings of anger and confusion, which are common feelings experienced in grief. Thus, without support children can remain feeling confused, angry, and abandoned. The feelings are not the problem – it is the lack of support given that causes unhealthy coping skills. 

How to support your child to have all their feelings

Our society has certain norms about loss and grief that are counterintuitive to emotional health. Specifically, the opinion that people should “stay positive” and “look on the bright side” can be detrimental and confusing for grievers, especially children. Death is sad, scary, and mysterious. So why do we teach children to think happy thoughts during the saddest time in their life?

We also teach children to not share their feelings when someone or something is dying. Adults do this by talking about death in hushed tones. We whisper, within earshot, the updates about the dying person’s status. Children may not fully understand the content, but they certainly notice the tone in which it is conveyed.

Adults, then, have an important responsibility to children when they are talking about death. We are charged with this: to let children have all of their feelings.

When having a conversation about death with children it is important to explicitly tell them that it is ok to have lots of different feelings. Children need to feel felt and safe. After giving children age appropriate information, ask open ended questions rather than yes/no questions. The beauty of open ended questions is that they allow children to guide the conversation. Adults can unintentionally put ideas in children’s heads that were not there, like the fear that the child will not get to say goodbye. The adult’s role in the conversation is to facilitate, thus ensures that children share their true feelings. Additionally, open ended questions should still be specific. Asking “how do you feel?” comes from great intentions, but is too broad for children. They also may be socially programmed to answer that question with a quick “I’m fine” or “good.”

Children may have some feelings that are confusing to the parent. They may be angry at the person who is dying. They may feel relieved or appear indifferent. Some children may not outwardly show their feelings. Encouraging your child to share feelings should be done gently without pressure. Follow your child’s lead – they will express their feelings when they feel ready. Remember, most feelings and reactions are normal. If you set a foundation of openness, your child will know that they can go to you when they are ready to talk.

Lastly, children need to know that they are not alone. Adults can do this by lowering their own shield. This should be done appropriately. Children still need to feel that there is an adult in their life that is in control, especially as they are feeling that their world is out of control. Adults can assist children by mirroring their feelings. If a child shares that they are feeling sad, the adult can share that they are feeling sad, too. Crying in front of children is not inappropriate and can lead to more openness in your relationship. However, a child should never have to feel that they need to take care of an adult emotionally.

It is okay to ask for help

Talking to children about death and supporting their reactions can be very difficult. That is one reason why Imagine exists. We are here to listen and support you at any point in this journey. Our services are wide-ranging. We can role play a conversation, assist in making a plan, and provide more information about how to talk to your children about death, dying, illness, loss, and grief. We are available to meet at our center or come to your home.

If you are in need of support, or if you wish to learn more about Imagine, please contact Mandi Zucker, Program Director, by calling 908-264-3100 or emailing mandi@imaginenj.org

Imagine is a free year-round children’s grief support center that serves NJ children age 3-18 and young adults 18-30 who are grieving the death of a parent or sibling, or who are living with a parent of sibling with a life-altering illness. Imagine also provides grief education and training for thousands of teachers, parents, coaches, youth and other adults annually.  

 

 

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of TAPinto.net or anyone who works for TAPinto.net. TAPinto.net is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

TAP Into Another Town's News:

You May Also Be Interested In

Sign Up for E-News

Westfield

Sky Zone Trampoline Park Opens on Rt. 22 in Springfield

February 25, 2018

SPRINGFIELD, NJ — Sky Zone indoor trampoline park at 25 Route 22 in Springfield held a ribbon cutting ceremony Saturday with Mayor Rich Huber, Township Committeeman Chris Capodice and State Senator Tom Kean. After officially signing in, guests were allowed free rein of the facility.

The 35,000 square foot park includes wall-to-wall trampoline courts, a warped ...

Mayor Brindle’s Update

February 15, 2018

The following are highlights from the update that Mayor Shelley Brindle gave at Tuesday night’s town council meeting.

I first want to congratulate Nick Calello and David Went for their promotions to patrol officers in the Westfield Police Department. I’d also like to welcome and congratulate new Patrol Officer Fortunato Riga, who joins the police department this week upon his ...

Upcoming Events

Carousel_image_2e2e4830042112095f66_94f09724857a937db1ac_d6404e0a-7afd-4279-b56f-19b0f9b2138c

Sun, February 25, 10:00 AM

Camp Riverbend, Warren

Camp Riverbend Open House

Carousel_image_d28b11720ab931cdced4_hamantash_bake_2018

Sun, February 25, 11:30 AM

Union County Torah Center - Chabad, Westfield

Hamantash Bake at the Torah Center

Religions And Spirituality

Tue, February 27, 7:30 PM

Westfield

Westfield Board of Education Meeting

Education

Westfield Police Blotter: Man Steals 60 Pairs of Pants from Downtown Store & More

February 21, 2018

February 14, 2018 10:53 p.m.

Officers Gill and Weiss arrested Luis Murillo, age 30, of Rahway, NJ, for two outstanding warrants out of Westfield Municipal Court ($500) and Woodbridge Municipal Court ($500) pursuant to a motor vehicle stop in Scotch Plans Township. Subject was transported to headquarters, processed and released after posting requisite bail.

 

February 15, 2018 5:24 ...

Wardlaw+Hartridge Students Present Creative Movement Showcase

February 25, 2018

Middle School students at The Wardlaw+Hartridge School in Edison who participated in the first Creative Movement class presented their work in a showcase on Feb. 14 in the Berry Performing Arts Center.

W+H partnered with The Mason Gross Masters in Dance Education Program to offer a Creative Movement class to teach students how to express themselves and their creative ideas through ...

7 Homes Sold Last Week in Westfield, Scotch Plains, Fanwood, Mountainside & Cranford

Seven homes sold last week, 2/18/2018-2/25/18, in Westfield, Scotch Plains, Fanwood, Mountainside and Cranford.*

 

TOWN               ADDRESS             STYLE            RMS     ...

The Missing Moses

A seemingly dubious distinction belongs to this week’s Parshah, Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20–30:10). It is the only reading in the Torah — from the first Parshah of the book of Exodus (in which he is born) until the end of the book of Numbers — where the name of Moses is not mentioned. Tetzaveh’s opening words are V’atah ...

‘Month of Hope’ at Wilson School

Inspired by the HOPE Week Initiative introduced in 2009 by the New York Yankees, Mr. Joseph Malanga, principal of Wilson School and a fan of the American League professional ballclub, declared January the “Month of Hope” at Wilson.

Malanga called on the school’s faculty Acts of Kindness Committee to choose the charitable organizations to be recipients of the weekly donation ...

AtlantiCast

AtlantiCast: Episode 12

On this week’s episode of AtlantiCast, decade of excellence makes headlines, as Atlantic Health’s place on Fortune Magazine’s 100 Best Companies to Work For List leads off the newest episode of AtlantiCast. Also on this week’s show, check out the newest “hybrid” operating room at Morristown Medical Center and find out how Atlantic Health is helping local ...

Good News in NJ for Veterans

Beginning in the 2017 tax year, New Jersey will give an additional $3,000 exemption for military veterans. You are eligible to claim this exemption NJ state income tax return if you are a military veteran who was honorably discharged or released under honorable circumstances from active duty in the Armed Forces of the United States on or before the last day of the tax year.

 

The ...

How to Talk with Kids About the Florida Shooting

February 13, 2018

The tragedy of the Florida school shooting is devastating, leaving 17 killed and 15 injured. Our children can easily identify with what occurred yesterday. It will be the topic of conversation today in schools everywhere. School administrators are doing all they can to provide support and guidance. The shootings affect children, teachers, and school personnel. The school shooting ...

Love Craft Beer But Hate the Tour? State Assembly Moves to Make it Easier for You to Belly Up to the Bar

Good news is a brew for New Jersey craft beer advocates. In February 2018, the New Jersey Assembly’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee paved the way for the introduction of Bill A2196, which would remove a current licensing rule requiring breweries and distilleries to provide a tour of their facilities before serving alcoholic beverages to consumers. Currently, breweries holding a ...

'What Stays' exposes family secrets and lies

‘What Stays’ exposes family secrets, resentment and lies

By Liz Keill

SUMMIT, NJ – In an original play by Laura Ekstrand and Jason Szamreta, the Dreamcatcher Repertory Theatre has provided an enlightening, funny and heart-felt view of family foibles.

Ekstrand has said that the germ of the play came from conversations with the ensemble members of the troupe, based on ...

Is FAANG Long in the Tooth?

Investors love to rally around a stock story. Today it’s all about the FAANG stocks. Facebook (FB), Amazon (AMZN), Apple (AAPL), Netflix (NFLX) and Google (GOOG) are a major reason why the S&P 500 rallied so much in 2017. Mr. Market is convinced the FAANGs are impervious to a sell-off. “Its different this time” is ringing loud and clear, but will the outcome really be that ...

Imagine a Chatham Toboggan Ride from the Top of Fairmount Avenue to Main Street

Did you know….
there was a time when Chatham kids could ice skate from downtown Chatham all the way to Florham Park? And that a toboggan ride could last from the top of Fairmount Avenue down to Main Street and beyond?

Those were the days!

This was back in the early to mid-1900s. The Passaic River meandered through grassy meadows and woods on the north side of Chatham. The marshy ...

Obituaries

Kathleen Marie Christian (nee Helmstetter), age 73 of Surf City, NJ, passed away peacefully at home ...
Read more

Nutley Police Make Arrest In Instagram School Threat Case

February 24, 2018

NUTLEY, NJ — An 18-year-old high school student has been charged with Third Degree False Public Alarm after an Instagram post led the Nutley school district to close schools last week.

Joseph Rafanello, a senior at Nutley High School, was arrested and taken to Essex County Jail.The arrest followed a full investigation by the police. The video at ...