Is it my fault my mom died? Did she suffer?
Developmentally, young children live in an egocentric world filled with the notion that they have caused and are responsible for everything. They have a great deal of magical thinking and often see themselves as having caused the death.
Only when this magical thinking about causing a death can be expressed will the burden begin to be released. Explaining the facts of a persons death is important, whether they are medical reasons or related to an accident or traumatic event. Adults can check to be sure children understand an explanation by asking them what they think they heard and repeat it. Sometimes children misinterpret the facts.
Children of all ages and adults can usually find a reason why their person died. They have so many if only and what ifs. Sometimes blaming themselves helps them to feel like there is some control and reason over something that may appear so random. Older children have magical thinking too.
James (12): a case study
James was 12 when his mom was killed in a car crash. She had repeatedly asked him to go on the Internet and get directions to her meeting. He never got around to it. Frustrated and in a rush, Mom left the house saying, Ill have to figure it out as I go, and Im late.
Thats the last thing she ever said to James. She hit another car at a stop sign and was immediately killed. The police said she was dialing a number on her mobile phone. James secretly thought she was dialing him for directions.
He blamed himself every day. He was continually plagued with asking himself the same question, Who was Mom calling?
Was she calling me when she died?
I know you worry that your mom was calling you when the accident happened. Possibly we can check her mobile phone and find out who she was calling so you know the facts. Maybe your dad knows.
Dad said she was calling him, not me. But I still should have gotten her the directions. Is it my fault my mom died?
No, it is not your fault. Your mom was responsible for getting the directions to her meeting, not you. You might be looking for a reason to blame yourself just to make sense of a terrible tragedy. You could be thinking if only you had gotten her the directions she wouldnt have made the call. It is common to play back in your mind all of the things you should have done that day. We dont know why your mom made the call, but we do know she was driving and dialing her mobile phone at the same time. That is a dangerous thing to do and may have caused the accident.
One time I was angry with my mom. I told her I wished she were dead. Did that make it happen?
Thoughts and feelings cant make a person die. That is called magical thinking. You may begin to think your words were so powerful they could make your mom die. But they cant. Death is not like magic. Your mom hurt herself very badly when she fell down. She had a heart attack. That made her die - not your words.
My mom picked me up the night she died. Then she had a heart attack. Did that kill my mom?
No, your mom lifting you up did not kill her. She had heart disease that made her very ill. The doctors gave her medicine, but she smoked cigarettes and was overweight. That made her heart disease worse. It wasnt your fault Mom died. Her heart stopped working when she fell down.
Suzie (7; dad killed in terrorist attack)
My dad had a cold the day of the attack. Couldnt I have saved him if I made him stay home that day? Why didnt I call him and warn him the terrorists were coming?
Often children feel they could have done something to prevent their persons death. It is very common. When you think back on that day you can probably think of lots of ways you could have stopped what happened. But you didnt know it was going to happen at the time. What are some of your if only or what ifs that go through your mind?
If only I had made my dad stay home, warned him on the mobile phone, or given him a big ladder to take to work to escape. I could have saved him. Is it my fault he died?
It is not your fault and you are in no way responsible. I know you wish you could have helped your dad with all of those good ideas but that would have been impossible. You didnt know what was going to happen. Some people did a very bad thing by surprising everyone in your dads office with a bomb that hurt many people.
Michael (10; dad died in military combat)
I get so scared when I picture the way my dad died. I cant stop thinking about it. Do you think my dad suffered?
I can hear the anxiety in your voice when you talk about your dads death. It must be so hard to keep thinking thoughts over and over again and picturing what happened. It is very common to have those thoughts and feelings after a sudden and traumatic death. It might help to draw what you pictured in your mind happened to Dad and tell me about it. That helps to remove it from your thoughts.
Heres my picture. The tank is exploding and Dad is on the ground. Look - he is all alone. Do you think he had help?
Your picture helps us to understand that one thing that is scaring you is thinking your dad was alone. Your dad was not alone. He was with two other soldiers who said they are willing to answer your questions. I can help arrange for you to speak with the two surviving soldiers and the medic on hand that day. Would you like to find out more about what happened when your dad died?
I do want to find out what happened that day. I want to know the facts.
I think thats a good idea. Before we talk with the soldiers and medic, lets make a list of what you would like to find out. I know you wondered if he was alone, did he suffer, and did he say anything before he died. Take some time and think about it. We can have the list of questions ready for the day of the meeting.
Im glad I learned my dad wasnt alone and didnt suffer. Its nice to picture him surrounded with people who cared. It helps me not to worry about him so much.
Now you have a reassuring vision to hold next to your hard ones. Picturing Dad surrounded by people that cared about him and knowing he wasnt in pain helps let go of some of the worry You dont have to guess about what happened now you know the facts.
I had a dream about my dad after our meeting. Dad was wearing his best uniform and gave me a hug. Do you think that means he is all right?
Maybe learning the details about Dads death was helpful. I think it is comforting for you to think about that dream. Picturing Dad looking handsome in his best uniform giving you a big hug is special. Some children think their person may be visiting them in their dream. Others think its a message that their person is OK, while still others just like to remember the good feelings. Nobody really knows the answer. But learning the details about your dads death may have helped you relieve your worry about him suffering and open the way for a good dream!
Listen not only with your ears, but also with a listening heart. Allow young people the opportunity to tell their entire story without interpretation, judgment, or preconceived notions. Try to uncover childrens blame or worry by hearing their own questions, dreams, and visions. Answering honestly and providing accurate facts and details create an atmosphere of trust that permits kids to express and release guilt, fear, and magical thinking.