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Parents Encouraged to Discuss Death in Moments They Don’t Have To

by Samantha Critchell
the Associated Press
March 22, 2005

Death is a fact of life, but it’s not one that is easy to explain to children without scaring or scarring them.

Because it is such a difficult and complicated subject — even for many adults — parents often wait to discuss it until they absolutely have to, such as when a beloved relative or family pet dies.

Don’t delay, advises Robie Harris, author of “Goodbye Mousie” (Simon & Schuster), a story written in the voice of a young boy whose pet mouse didn’t wake up one morning. Parents will be better prepared to give thoughtful answers to kids’ anxious questions during times of relative calm, she says.

Also, adds Harris, if death is talked about as part of regular conversation, it won’t come as such a shock when a child is indeed personally affected by it.

Harris says she never set out to write a book about death, but the concept of loss and how families deal with that “really is one of life’s most interesting stories.”

“Attachment, love and loss are all topics everyone experiences, even young children. It’s a book I believe was in my head for ages,” she says. “It comes from my own children’s love of pets — and all the gerbils, mice, dogs and goldfish all buried in our backyard,” says Harris, the mother of two sons and grandmother of four.

Children generally become aware of death around age 4 and are developmentally ready to begin to grasp it, says David Sparrow, senior editor at Parents, but some are exposed to it earlier in books, movies or their own lives.

Sparrow edited a question-and-answer column on introducing children to the idea of death for the magazine’s May issue.

The best strategy is to answer kids’ questions truthfully and simply, but parents shouldn’t add to their response more than the child wanted to know, Sparrow suggests.

For example: A child asks, “Why do people die?”

The answer should be, “People die when their hearts stop beating and their bodies stop working.”

That’s the truth and preschoolers will be able to understand it because they grasp when things work and when they don’t — sort of like a toy that runs on batteries. Sometimes the batteries die, and the toy no longer works.

“Parents are very afraid to be straightforward, but while they might have the best intentions, some of the language they use can be confusing. Saying, `We lost Uncle Henry’ or `We had to put Fluffy to sleep’ is dangerous on several levels,” Sparrow says, “because children might then think that Uncle Henry will come back, or it’ll cause unneeded anxieties in kids about sleep.”

Of course, the straightforward answer might also leave children upset and nervous, especially if they do understand the irreversibility of death, but those feelings should subside over time, both Sparrow and Harris say.

Encourage children to share their feelings, advises Harris. The lead character in “Goodbye Mousie” does just that: First there is denial — “Mousie is NOT dead! Mousie was alive just last night! He’s just … very … very sleepy this morning.” — then anger, sadness and, eventually, some acceptance.

Children can experience these emotions if they lose their favorite blanket or teddy bear — even if it’s only missing for 20 minutes.

“It’s about the things you care and love about … and the universal emotions of loss,” says Harris, who has also written new books called “I’m So Mad” and “I’m So Sleepy,” which aim to help children understand why they feel the way they do.

And if Uncle Henry or Fluffy died, children probably are worried that others will, too.

Adults need to choose their words carefully here, Sparrow says.

“Tell them death isn’t contagious. Tell them it usually happens to old people or to people who are very very sick, and that their mommy and daddy are fine and there’ll always be someone to take care of them,” he says.

Advance preparation can help everyone grieve, he adds. Then a ceremony, be it a formal funeral for grandpa or a backyard burial for a pet can set the stage for acceptance.

“We, as a family, put dead pets in a shoe box and then we decorated it. It was our ritual but it’s similar to ancient Egypt. You put in (the box) nice things of your own to be with Mousie. A picture, a carrot, a tiny toy car. Then you decorate. That helps children move through it,” Harris says.

She also encourages parents to talk about the full and happy life the person or pet lived, and ask the kids about their own favorite memories. Maybe the children will laugh, maybe they’ll cry, but, either way, this means they are moving on, Harris says.

Don’t be surprised, though, if some children don’t seem to have much reaction at all, notes Sparrow.

“Don’t expect your child to grieve the same way you do,” he says. Some children will get fidgety and want to play during a funeral, others might withdraw, and still others might ask 20 questions — or the same one 20 times. Parents only need to worry if the children veer sharply off their normal course of behavior, Sparrow explains.

“There’s nothing abnormal or morbid about child becoming a little fixated on death. It’s difficult for them to handle and they’re trying to make sense of the world, learning about life and death. It’s something new and they’re trying to absorb it.”