In 1963 it was the assassination of a president. In 1986 it was the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, witnessed by millions of children on TV. In 2001 it was the terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
Now it is 2022. In the last two years the COVID-19 virus has killed more than a million Americans and more than five million others throughout the world. And now, war has broken out in Eastern Europe.
Like those tragedies faced by older generations, today’s shocking events thrust children into the face of death in sudden and graphic ways.
Stand in your child’s shoes
As much as you can for a moment, imagine that you are your child age 10 or younger and you are facing the difficult realities of 2022. Imagine the questions you might have:
“Why did this happen?”
“Why did these people have to die?”
“Where are they now?”
“What is death?”
“How will their family members live without them?”
And often at the top of a child’s mind: “Could this happen to someone in my family? Am I safe?”
Challenges to a child’s understanding death
Questions like these are difficult enough for an adult to deal with, let alone a child. Many children under age 10 have not yet reached a cognitive level that would enable them to process information regarding death with adult-like logic.
In addition to these cognitive limitations, children face another significant challenge in 2022 when it comes to understanding of death: Through no fault of their own, our children (and many of us as well) have grown up in a death-sanitized environment.
For the past fifty years, most American children have grown up with few traumatic death experiences. It is a rare child today who has experienced the death of a playmate or been allowed to be present at the deathbed scene of a dying relative in the home.
A newsfeed away
Our children have little lived experience or cultural guidance to draw from – until a horrendous event emerges. Death for today’s children isn’t limited to bad guys on television or older people passing in a hospital as it might have been for us parents when we were children. It is a live news feed or mask away.
Whether you are talking about war or pandemic or both, these historical events are a unique opportunity for parents and educators to begin a dialogue with children about death.
Whenever we are interested in educating a child about any difficult issue, we as parents must keep a lookout for “teachable moments,” those spontaneous events that effectively set the stage for parent-child discussion. As a parent, you can use these events as a way to ask questions, clarify misconceptions and reinforce beliefs about a variety of death-related issues.
How to approach talking about death
A word of caution: Do not lecture.
Instead, practice your best listening skills. As much as possible, let the child do most of the talking. This is what my friend Linda Wong-Garl did with her first and second-graders during the days following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
“It was amazing,” she said. “I sat with the kids, asked questions, and let them talk. It was magic.”
I repeat: Close your mouth.
This is your child’s time to freely discuss any areas of confusion.
Listen, don’t argue
Do not criticize or engage in argumentative tussles. For elementary and preschool children, you may want to provide crayons and paper. If you feel compelled to suggest alternative explanations to what your child believes, do so gently.
Next, paraphrase or summarize back to your child what he or she has just said. For example, you might respond starting with “So you’re saying that death to you seems like…”
To help get you started, here is a list of 10 examples that may stimulate a child’s discussion of death. Each topic listed below has an associated question that could be asked by a parent. Any one of the questions can serve as a catalyst for a discussion about death.
Questions to get a conversation started
- Topic: Understanding the permanency of death. Question to ask your child: “Do you think the people who died can come back to life?”
- Topic: Belief about life after death. Question to ask your child: “Where do you think the people who died are now?”
- Topic: Fears about death. Question to ask your child: “Is there anything that scares you about this?”
- Topic: Understanding bereavement. Question to ask your child: “How do you think the families are feeling about the death of their loved ones?”
- Topic: Reminders of other deaths. Question to ask your child: “Has this made you think of Grandpa’s death?” and/or “Let’s talk about that for a moment.”
- Topic: Spiritual aspects of death. Question to ask your child: “Do you believe that there is a God? If so, what do you think about God’s role in this?”
- Topic: Personal reactions to death. Question to ask your child: “Has this bothered you?”and “If so, how?” Add, “Do you have problems with your stomach, sleep, etc.?”
- Topic: Thoughts of one’s own death. Question to ask your child: “Has this made you think about your own death? In what way?”
- Topic: Issues of safety. Question to ask your child: “Do you think you might get the virus?” and/or “What can you do to prevent getting it?”
- Topic: Philosophy of life. Question to ask your child: “Have all of these deaths made you think about how you would like to live your life?”
Be aware that some children will not respond well to these questions.
When the moment isn’t right
Sometimes the teachable moment you’ve identified isn’t the right moment for your child.
Bringing up questions at another time (a day or two later) without badgering may eventually produce an open discussion.
You will find that even a few weeks after a good discussion, your child may have forgotten or misinterpreted part of the information. Recycling through notions of death and life issues is the way children learn.
No perfect time
After you ask these questions, your child may become upset. As difficult as this may be to see, remember: your child will later be more upset if you try to hide the truth. Your main job is to be honest with your child.
There is never a perfect time to talk about death.
As it is with sex, death can be a topic parents shy away from with younger children, sometimes with painful consequences.
We tend to remember that death is a part of life only when a tragic event hits us personally. As was the case with tragedies of the past, the still-present COVID virus and war in Ukraine causing the death of so many provides us a rare opportunity to educate our children.
The virus, the war, are both teachable moments — possible opportunities for parents to begin to fill the vacuum of death-related issues in the knowledge base of our children.
A gift to your child
In these uncertain times children need to be prepared for subsequent loss of life rather than be shielded from a painful truth.
Sit down this evening with your child and ask a question or two. Take the first step in giving a truthful gift that can last a lifetime—the gift of knowledge—however painful that knowledge may be.
Bob Baugher, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at Highline College in Des Moines. He is a certified Fellow in Thanatology for the Association for Death Education and Counseling and has given more than 800 workshops on the topics of grief and loss around the globe.