Discussing the Death of a Child with Children
It is with a very heavy heart that I write this post today. An eight-year-old boy in my son’s class died over the weekend from a tragic fall.
We were notified by the school so we could discuss it with our children before they arrived at school on Monday. My family was on our way out the door to celebrate Father’s Day with my parents when I received the phone call with the devastating news.
I called my 2nd grade son over to talk with him about his classmate. When I told him what had happened, my son just stood there, big brown eyes as wide as saucers, silently looking at me. As his mom, I saw so many things in his eyes at that moment. I saw shock. I saw confusion. Mostly, though, I saw “Help,” just written across his young face.
Help me understand what you just said, how it happened, why it happened and what it means.
He didn’t say any of those things. And, as I’ve learned so many times since becoming a parent, you can never really tell what anyone else is thinking. You know your children and you hope you can guess, but you can never really know for sure.
This boy whose life was cut way too short, was a quiet boy, like my son. They weren’t very close, but they sat together at lunch most days and were friendly toward each other. I guess I expected something more of a response or reaction from my son. But he didn’t say anything.
“How are you feeling about all of this?” I asked him.
“I’m sad because I know this is a sad thing and I’m supposed to feel sad,” he started, then trailed off.
“Are you confused?” I asked, silently beseeching him to share his thoughts with me so I could help him.
“Yes because nothing like this has ever happened before,” he told me.
We talked a little more after that, but I know how my son handles things and I knew he needed more time to absorb the news and process it before he would have any more to say.
That night, as I tucked my boys in bed, I led them in some extra prayers. We prayed for God to welcome Alex to heaven and take care of him and let him know that he is loved and missed.
We prayed for strength and peace for his parents as they deal with their loss and grief. A loss no parent should ever have to face.
We prayed for his sisters, that they not blame themselves, that they find understanding and acceptance.
And we prayed for God to watch over all of the people in his family, our school, and our town who will collectively grieve for this young boy.
When we finished our prayers, my Kindergarten son asked me through tears, “Mommy, if Alex is in heaven, who will take care of him? How can he be in heaven without a Mommy or Daddy?’
Choking back fresh tears, I explained that he would find grandparents or great-grandparents or other family members who would find him and take care of him. And that God is everybody’s Daddy and would watch over him in heaven.
It’s now a day later and my oldest son is in school, where they are having the counselor speak with the students to help them understand what happened.
While he is there, I’ve been thinking of Alex’s family, especially his mom. My heart breaks every time I do. Motherhood is the most wonderful, instantly-bonding experience in life. It immediately connects you to other mothers simply for the mere fact that you all KNOW what it’s all about. With that connection, though, comes grief and heartache at any story of tragedy befalling children. Instantly, you imagine yourself in that mother’s shoes and can’t fight the tears of empathy and deep, deep sadness that overwhelm every one of your senses.
All day long, I’ve been counting the minutes until I can pick up my son and hug him. I hope he’ll tell me that he heard what the counselors said and was part of the discussion. I hope he’ll talk to me some more about how he is feeling and what he thinks about all of this.
More than anything else, though, I’ll just hold him tight, grateful for his healthy body in my arms.
To Alex’s family, I am so very sorry for your loss. Thank you for bringing your son into my son’s life, as I know he enjoyed his company. I pray for you all, and send my very deepest sympathy to you all.
To others reeling from the loss of this young boy or any other tragedy, I’d like to share the tips that were sent out by our school to help us discuss this with our children so they can deal with it in their own way. I’m grateful for the guidance and hope it can help others.
What you can do:
- Ask what your child understands already
- Work from their questions
- Be Honest. Use words such as dead and died. Avoid passed away, gone to heaven, is asleep, etc.
- Check to see that your child knows what death is. Refer back to previous experiences, if possible, to use as a starting point.
- Answer questions.
- Explain what feelings may come and that other children and grown ups have the same feelings.
- Be sure they know that nothing they thought or did caused it.
- Talk about any fears they have. Reiterate to your children that they are safe, and that there are people in their lives who work to make them safe.
- Discuss with your children ways in which the whole family can be supportive to each other and to others during this difficult time.
- Please remember that depending on your child’s age and developmental level, they may express their grief through a range of behavior including anger, sadness, lack of focus, or excessive silliness. Children may also not have an immediate response to difficult news, but may wait for some time before asking questions or making comments.