Do you have any good resources for a parent with a young child who is trying to explain the end of life process? His grandma is in the final stages of cancer and she’s trying to help him cope. Thanks for any help you can offer.
An old friend
Thanks so much for reaching out to me about this kiddo and his family. Life is hard, isn’t it? We wish we could protect our little ones from the painful reality of life, but doing so doesn’t prepare them for the bumpy road ahead, and sometimes the bumps are imminently ahead.
How do we speak to children honestly, and in developmentally appropriate ways, about big and complex issues, ones that are difficult for even adults to understand? Things like sickness and death, the ongoing pandemic, divorce, and all the other forms of pain, unfairness, and cruelty in the world?
Famed children’s author Maurice Sendak answered this question quite simply:
Tell them anything you want, as long as it’s true.-Maurice Sendak
That doesn’t mean we tell them everything. Children process big issues like death one small bite at a time. The NPR Life Kit article listed below describes it like eating an apple – they may sit and eat one or two small bites, then put the apple down and walk away for awhile, returning to it only when they are ready to chew on it a bit more. So, too, may they come to understand the great big goodbye of death bite by bite, gradually forming a more and more accurate picture. After the first bite (“Grandma’s body isn’t working so well – soon her heart will stop beating and she will die.”), they may express understanding, but come back the next day to ask if grandma can come over to play. It takes many bites to fathom the unfathomable. And really, who among us adults can claim to have a full grasp of something as vast and ineffable as death?
Back to Maurice Sendak’s advice, and as described in the This American Life episode listed below, it’s important to be specific and not use euphemisms when describing death to children. It’s best to avoid phrases like “passed away,” “put to sleep,” or “going to heaven” with children whose sense of reality is already somewhat tentative. What is “passing away” anyway? If Fluffy is sleeping, will I die when I sleep? If grandma is in heaven, can we visit her there? It’s also best to avoid descriptions like, “Grandma is sick and won’t get better,” because this may cause children to be fearful of when they or their loved ones get a cold. Instead, we can be very simple and specific about death being something that happens when someone’s body stops working. They take a breath, breathe out, and don’t take another one again.
That’s the practical matter of death, but what about the relational part? It’s so important to be courageous in facing death head-on and factually so that we give children a chance to have a good goodbye. Such a farewell can take many forms, depending on your family’s constellation and culture, and on the nature of the loved one’s death. We may be fortunate enough to say our goodbyes to the loved one in person, perhaps over some period of time, or we may need to say our goodbyes after they have already died. We might think about how to honor a person’s memory and take opportunities during that person’s lifetime to preserve their stories and ask how they would best like to be remembered.
Friend, nobody wants to die. Nobody wants their children to taste from the tree of knowledge and recognize their own mortality, and that of everyone around them. But death is a part of life. Our ancestors understood this, and had a much different relationship to something that, to them, was experienced as a natural part of life’s ebbs and flows. One perhaps imbued with greater meaning, purpose, and serenity than many of us might imagine possible. Let us strive to reclaim the wisdom of our species and all who have come before us as we speak the truth to our children and help them to bravely face the many goodbyes they must encounter during this life’s journey.
In service of this goal, here are some resources for you and them:
- For Parents
- This American Life: “Birds & Bees” – This episode of the award-winning podcast did a terrific episode about having difficult conversations with kids. They highlight a grief center that offers groups for bereaved children and how they speak matter-of-factly about death and different ways of dying.
- NPR’s Life Kit – How to Talk to Children about Death – NPR’s Life Kit series is a tremendous resource for parents navigating life’s many challenges. Their stellar reporting brings thoughtful experts to the table on a variety of sensitive issues, including death of a loved one.
- For Kids & Parents Together (nonfiction)
- I Have a Question About Death – While this series is marketed for children on the autism spectrum, they offer simple explanations of complex issues that very young children can understand.
- A Kids Book About Death – This curated series invites diverse authors to write age-appropriate, thoughtful, factual books about complex and timely issues.
- Sesame Street’s Grief Toolkit – Sesame Workshop is a leader in thinking sensitively about how to help children learn and grow. Their series of toolkits on a variety of life changes offer tools for parents and children to explore together, including videos and stories. This landing page takes you to their toolkit all about grief.
- TwigTale – This customizable series of book templates allows families to tell their own personal stories about important life events with special photos of loved ones. They have a book about navigating cancer as well as one about the death of a loved one.
- Picture book fiction
- Granddad’s Island by Benji Davies – This sweet, touching book offers a metaphorical fantasy idea about what happens to us when we die, using imagination to process and make sense of the meaning of loss for a small child.
- Big Cat, Little Cat by Elisha Cooper – This simple book offers a surprisingly powerful picture of the impact of our lives on one another, the profound sorrow of death, and how we pass on the gifts given to us.
- The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers – This one may be a little heady for a 6 year old, but it’s a true gem. A girl places her heart in a bottle for safekeeping after losing a dear loved one, but finds she is unable to get it back out again. A remarkably illustrated parable about how our hearts navigate grief, and how we can learn to love and live again after loss.
Take good care, stay safe, and thanks for reaching out.
For additional reading:
- Nearly departed: Mourning imaginary friends and worlds
- What is Mental Health? A Taste of Alicia Lieberman
- Who by fire? Thoughts on mortality during the Jewish New Year Festival
- Sunrise, sunset: Mourning who our children once were, welcoming who they are becoming
Rebekka Helford is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Los Angeles, California. With over a decade of experience working with parents and young children, Rebekka specializes in short-term intensive parenting consultation, using a variety of tools including home, office, and school visits to help families navigate developmental hiccups and get back on track. Virtual visits now available!
Click here to schedule an appointment or contact Rebekka with a question – who knows, she might even answer it in her next post!