Even though death, serious illnesses and losses such as a divorce are inevitabilities of life, many people aren’t sure how to discuss these issues with their children.
“I think it’s important to tell your children the truth,” says Mignon Kennedy, a licensed social worker and executive director at Gabriel's Horn, a short-term homeless shelter for women and children in Porter County. “But for very young kids, I think you should use words that are more understandable to them at their level and you may have to leave out things that may be too difficult for them.”
Understanding and compassion should be a component of any conversation.
“When talking to your children about something that is sad, do so without blame or anger,” Kennedy says. “Anyone can do something that is wrong and causes pain but that doesn’t make them a bad person overall.”
Recently Kennedy had to deliver sad news to her children, ages 12 and 15, about their grandfather, who was diagnosed with a terminal illness.
“My husband and I were very honest and told them Grandpa had cancer and wasn’t going to live,” she says. She encouraged her children to ask questions and express their emotions because if parents don’t talk about what’s going on and what they’re feeling, then children will feel as though they can’t talk about it, either.
“When it looked like he was going to pass away in the next few days, we said, ‘Grandpa is not doing well and we really need you to go see him,” Kennedy recalls. “My youngest was surprised and said he thought grandpa was going to live for another year. That made me realize it’s also important to give children more details to help them fully understand the situation.”
Parents should keep in mind a child’s cognitive age when telling them bad news, says Larry Brewerton, PhD, an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Psychology at Indiana University Northwest who also has a part-time private clinical practice. Younger children have a more difficult time understanding the finality of death, he says.
“It’s also important to separate your own emotions from those of your children,” Brewerton says. “Parents shouldn’t try to create guilt when their children don’t have the same feelings as they do.”
As an example, the demise of aged grandparents who live far away most likely will have a bigger impact upon the parent who knew them well than a child who rarely saw them.
“You need to let children show their emotions and deal with their feelings at their own pace,” Brewerton says. “Don’t guide them and don’t criticize them for not experiencing the same emotions at the same time that you are.”
Kennedy says she thought it was important for her own children to visit their grandfather one last time.
“People say, 'Oh, I won’t do that because then that will be the only memory they have of him or her,' " she says. “But I think children need closure — it’s part of life. After my mother died, I didn’t think just of her last days when she was ill. Ninety percent of the time when I remember my mom it’s about the things we did together and the times we spent together.”