Seattle's Child

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When parent death is expected

Verhanika Willhelm with her husband, Andy, and son, Ronan. Photo courtesy Verhanika Willhelm

Preparing a child for the death of a parent

How to talk to kids when loss of mom or dad is expected

I was 12 years old, the youngest of five children. I’m what’s affectionately known as an “oops baby”— my parents had four kids in six years, and then I came along eight years later.

My mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer and had a double mastectomy the year before. I remember I was talking with my sister saying, “I’m so glad mom’s better now.” 

The look on my sister’s face told me something was wrong. She asked what I meant. I said, “You know, the cancer, I’m glad she’s better now.” 

That’s when she told me, “Oh no. She’s not better; she’s never going to get better.”

I was rocked. 

My sister evidently reported this to my mother, as is often the way with big sisters. My mom was young, 49, and coping the best way she knew how. 

Death averse

As a culture, we are death averse. We don’t like to think about it, and we certainly don’t like to talk about it. And often, when a loved one is dying, the adults tend to do most of the talking. 

But what about the kids? There’s a natural inclination to protect children when a parent is dying. But with careful thought and preparation, it is a conversation that can be had with grace, intention, skill, and, yes, even protection. 

A child will figure it out

I was determined not to be in the dark after my sister’s remark and did what 12-year-olds do. I snooped. I found my mom’s copy of On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her bedside bookcase. She was preparing herself. But, she hadn’t been preparing me. In my sleuthing, I learned this was something she had fretted about. She kept a journal, which I found in her underwear drawer. 

Thankfully, not long after this discovery, my mom, sister, and I had a conference. Mom told me that not only was she not better, she was going to die. From then on, we could talk about it openly. 

They were not easy, or even frequent conversations, but I knew what was coming. Her journals, which I continued to read secretly, took a different direction. They included gentle guidance and instructions for my dad and me after she was gone. 

No right way, but a needed conversation

Is there a right way to help kids prepare for and deal with the death of a parent and the grief that follows? What can a parent do?

In Seattle, there are excellent resources to assist with the conversation and to provide support for children expecting or who have already experienced a parent’s death. One such place is The Healing Center where part of the work is recognizing society’s orientation. 

“Our culture is beauty- and youth-oriented, and death is the opposite of that,” says Sonja Whitaker, MS, LMFT, center’s clinical director. “The Healing Center exists to help our community normalize grief.”

Whitaker says how to talk to a child about parental loss depends on the age and a child’s cognitive capacity. The Healing Center typically works with families after a death, but Whitaker has some advice for having a conversation as the loved one is dying. 

“Kids know more than we think they do, can handle more than we think they can. Not having the conversation has more to do with the adults not being comfortable,” she says. “Usually, they know something is going on, and keeping the kids in the dark is not fair to them.”

Navigating a parent’s death with a young child

Verhanika Willhelm of Seattle lost her husband, Andy, to colon cancer. But before the family’s loss, the two worked hard to find ways to communicate what was happening with their young son. 

Andy was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer in November 2017 when Ronan was 17 months old. When Andy died 22 months later, Ronan was 3.

The parents were able to work with a team that included a hospice nurse, a social worker, and a spiritual advisor to help the family deal with what was coming. The team helped them find the language they needed.

Willhelm says, “Ronan, even at 3, needed to know that he could trust me and to be assured that I will not keep anything from him.”

A mother’s advice

Willhelm advises other parents to take care of themselves first.

“If you’re getting ready to have a conversation about death, plan your content ahead of time,” she says. “Andy was the love of my life, and I knew when he died the impact would be catastrophic to me. I needed to take care of myself so that I didn’t have a fight or flight reaction to Ronan’s questions.” 

A therapist helped Willhelm sort out her thoughts and feelings and understand what would cloud her ability to be a stable presence for her child. 

“I knew that Ronan would see me being emotional, so I needed to have language to explain that,” she says. “I would say, ‘I’m really sad right now,’ or ‘I need a hug.’ I needed to be sturdy and stable so he didn’t feel like he needed to take care of me.”

Creating a community of care

Willhelm also kept her son’s preschool informed about what was happening. The school brought in a child grief specialist to meet with their staff. 

“Their thinking was, he will not be the last child to lose a parent, let’s prepare all of our teachers to be ready,” says Willhelm. “I valued our community and our working together on messaging.”

She is committed to continuing the conversation with Ronan: “My son is the living legacy of my husband, and I honor my husband by how I continue to parent Ronan as we grieve together.” 

Adds Whitaker: “Death is scary, it is the biggest thing that happens to people. It also is normal, it happens to everyone, it is literally part of life. 

“Talking about death in a way that honors people and talks about their life and all of the things they were able to do and contribute, how important the child is to the person, these conversations make life richer in the end,” Whitaker says. “Death makes life more precious in a way that it wouldn’t be if life were infinite. Though difficult, it offers an opportunity for a much richer conversation.”

Still grateful five decades later

When my mom went into the hospital and eventually died in 1976, I had just turned 14. Of course it was difficult and terrible, but knowing what was coming was helpful. I also felt more included. I realized later that I had been hurt, insulted and angry that the rest of the family had kept this news from me. 

Nearly 50 years later, I am still grateful that I had the time to speak honestly with my mom about her death. The experience not only helped me through my grief but also taught me to face life’s most difficult situations with honesty. It is a gift that still resonates. 

Where to turn

Safe Crossings Foundation: Headquartered in Seattle, the foundation funds children’s grief support programs throughout Washington that provide culturally relevant and free services such as individual and group counseling, art and wilderness programs, student education, and more. The Safe Crossings website is an excellent resource on topics related to children and grief.

The Healing Center: Based in Seattle, The Healing Center provides grief support options in a group setting that pan all ages and stages in the grief process. Healing is not linear; programs are designed to support grievers as they evolve after loss.

The National Alliance for Childhood Grief : This nonprofit organization raises awareness about the needs of children and teens who are grieving a death and provides education and resources for anyone who supports them.

Read more:

Dad Next Door: When the unimaginable happens

5 tips to help kids cope with the loss of a pet or a person

ANU: Locally made film offers lessons in holding on and letting go


About the Author

Ruth Purcell

Ruth Purcell writes and recreates in West Seattle. She digs being with family and friends, wildlife (especially birds and harbor seals) gardening, and anything on the water.