Childrens questions are a window to their soul - and a mirror to their inner thoughts and feelings
Death is a difficult and sensitive topic to discuss with children. So often adults feel at a loss for words. Without knowing what to say or how to say it, many parents and professionals avoid childrens questions. Some refuse to respond at all. Eight-year-old Alice explained a disturbing event. She told her teacher about her dads death during the very first week of school. Her teacher never said a word. Infuriated and saddened, Alice asked over and over, Why didnt my teacher ever say anything back?
Often girls and boys share how angry and alone they feel at being dismissed or ignored when asking questions about the death of a loved one. Where did my mom go?, Why did Dad have to die?, Did my doggy suffer?, Will I die too? are very common thoughts for girls and boys to have.
Responding with care can normalize childrens uncomfortable ideas and feelings. Acknowledging their questions is a valuable way of reassuring them and helping them to feel safe.
Honoring children's questions
We may feel terrified when confronted by a child with a question about death, and send a conscious or unconscious message inhibiting further discussion. When adults respond to questions in ways that are more complicated than necessary, children can become overwhelmed. When adults limit replies or refuse to answer, children get the message. Death is a closed topic - dont ask again.
Joeys mom wanted to know, What do I do when my 5-year-old asks so many questions about death? One health care professional responded to Joeys mother in this way:
My daughter Annie is 5. She also asked too many questions about death. I explained to her she could only ask two questions a day. If she asked more than that she would need to go to her room for a half hour and think about it. This really worked. Within one months time Annie never asked another question about death.
Annie got the message in no uncertain terms - stop asking about death.
Placing restrictions or discounting childrens questions will tend to stop children asking them. Our goal is to create an environment where all questions are welcomed, accepted, and responded to openly and without judgment. The purpose of this book is to share simple and direct dialogues about death to facilitate open communication. Such comfortable language is a way caring adults can share appropriate responses that satisfy and nurture young people.
Children re-grieve at different developmental stages. During early childhood they are usually satisfied with a simple definition and explanation. They see death as reversible and have egocentric ideas involving magical thinking. Many times they believe they caused their persons death.
As they get older they become more curious about the facts of the death, and may come back to it at ages 8, 9, and 10 and revisit the death with new interest and inquisitiveness. In pre-adolescence and adolescence they have a strong need to look to their own age group to find answers.
At this age girls and boys begin to see that death is not reversible. Life is finite. Young people begin to form their own spiritual belief system and look to their peers for support and understanding. They feel empowered to become advocates for causes related to their persons death.
What to say and how to say it
Sammy, age 6, asked his mom, Why did Dad have to die? Mom responded, Why do you think? Instead of answering for him, Sammys mother created a non-judgmental space to hear her sons thoughts and feelings. I think Dad died because I was a bad boy and God was mad at me. Sammy shared his age-appropriate magical thinking that he was the cause of his fathers death. By expressing this fear out loud, Mom was able to talk about
Dads death and the facts surrounding it: Dad died from having heart disease. His heart had been sick for many years and the doctors had been helping him for a long time. It was not your fault.
Childrens questions about death reveal the essence of their inner world and create a deep insight into their grief process. They often reflect fears and worries that are easier for them to ask about than to dialogue directly. Listening with an inner ear to the feelings behind their questions is a valuable tool for exposing unsaid thoughts and feelings and helping boys and girls release them in a safe way.
The following chapters include suggestions of useful language on the topic of death. Each chapter contains practical, age-appropriate dialogue which respects and honors childrens questions on this subject. These dialogues encourage an open forum for discussion. Caring adults can discuss death with kids in ways that ease anxiety and build confidence for further exploration of ideas.
Childrens questions are the key that unlocks the door to understanding their grief so that we can help them.