Grief is enormously challenging — but it’s especially tough to explain to children… even on TV. In Showtime’s new series Kidding, a beloved children’s television host (Jim Carrey as Mr. Pickles) dedicates an episode to grieving inspired by the recent death of his own son, but the network refuses to run it. The station’s unwillingness to air the program is an accurate reflection of our cultural inability to deal with death head-on, says Robin F. Goodman, Ph.D., the executive director and bereavement program director of A Caring Hand in New York City. “There’s such stigma and avoidance around it,” she says. We want to pretend it doesn’t exist, often to the detriment of our ability to sensitively maneuver conversations about it. The irony is that death, a natural part of life, is everywhere — in our personal lives, on television, in movies, in books, online. “I mean it shows up on cartoons even. Bambi! The Lion King! Frozen! What do we think we’re actually hiding?” she asks.
While references to death saturate popular culture, the execs who shelve Mr. Pickle’s bereavement episode do so because they think parents don’t want to expose their kids to the pain of loss and that kids can’t handle it. Those are real concerns, Goodman says, but they’re misguided. “Parents not wanting their kids to deal with anything hard or terrible is understandable,” Goodman says, “but if kids are healthily taught to manage loss, they can integrate it into their lives in a really positive way.”
Goodman, who has consulted on programming related to grief for Sesame Street and developed Caring for Kids After Trauma and Death: A Guide for Parents and Professionals, used across the country after 9/11, offers Thrive Global her four best pieces of advice on how to talk with children about grief.
Model Good Coping Skills
While studies show that crying is a form of self-soothing, Goodman says to save your most tearful moments of mourning for yourself. “Adults will have their version of intense grieving,” she says, “but it’s important to figure out what version you can share with your child.” Your child needs to see that you can “manage your emotions,” she explains. That doesn’t mean that you should refrain from expressing sorrow — it just means to regulate or temper it.
“If you’re weeping over a lost loved one in front of your child,” Goodman says, “you can tell him or her, ‘I’m just sad today because I’m missing mom and sometimes I cry when I’m sad.’” Some parents’ inclination is to put on a false happy face to protect their kids from pain, but that could stymie their emotional development: “If you hide your emotions, it may make your kid’s feelings go underground, but they could pop up elsewhere,” she says. “It’ll be harder for them to learn to manage difficult feelings and difficult times.”
Be Honest and Don’t Avoid the Topic
Don’t conceal information or obfuscate the truth. When parents hide information, Goodman says, it might compel kids to use their imaginations or fill in the blanks with erroneous facts. Stay age-appropriate — see the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s tip sheet for further details on how to broach grief with different age groups — and be clear, like: “Dad died. His heart stopped and the doctors couldn’t fix it.”
Goodman emphasizes the importance of using the right words. It un-muddles things and “empowers people when they have the right language.” Goodman also recommends turning to fiction to impart truths about grief in ways that may elude you: Sad Isn’t Bad: A Good Grief Guidebook for Kids Dealing with Loss by M. Mundy, I Miss You: A First Look at Death by Pat Thomas (author) and Leslie Harker (illustrator), and Always by My Side by Susan Kerner are among her favorites. Sometimes stories say it better than you can, especially while you’re in despair and at a loss for words. British novelist Doris May Lessing said it best in her autobiography Under My Skin: “There is no doubt fiction makes a better job of the truth.”
It’s important to decipher what’s on your children’s minds, either verbally or by observing their behavior, and give them the space to ask questions. Your adult brain may be thinking they want to know the intricacies of what the doctor said and did, but more likely your child may be wondering if they — and you — are also in imminent danger of dying, and will need assurance that you both are going to be OK. “Reassurance should always be backed up by action, though” says Goodman, like ritualized self-care routines — visiting a doctor regularly, eating healthy food, exercising, visiting with family and friends. “That kind of stability is encouraging and normalizing,” she says.
Some parents’ instincts might be to put a permanent hush on the topic of their deceased loved one, but keep British novelist Terry Pratchett’s question in mind when the urge to silence their name emerges: “Do you not know that a man is not dead while his name is still spoken?” Studies demonstrate the healing power of storytelling, so uttering the dead person’s name and the memories they evoke is healthy for you and your child. Refraining from doing so could have negative consequences for your child: “It can communicate that avoiding tough feelings and topics is the best strategy,” Goodman says, “that things should stay a secret or it’s better not to talk about someone who died because it will make other people upset and that’s bad.”
A clinical psychologist specializing in grief as well as art therapy for more than 30 years, Goodman says you can also gain another window into children’s inner lives by encouraging them to express themselves through art. “Kids can express a lot about how they’re feeling through art or play,” Goodman says. They can also work their grief out through creative play, according to research published in Death Studies.
Know That Kids Are Resilient
Goodman points out that kids have an “internal drive to live, to move forward, and keep pushing ahead.” Encourage their resilience and let their adaptability and instincts to survive and thrive be a comfort to you. “Grieving is a normative process,” she says, “the majority of their reactions are going to be expected and appropriate.” However, look out for bumps in the road, like challenging behaviors at home or school. Also, use your resources — pediatricians, school counselors and teachers — to keep abreast of your child’s grieving process so you’ll know when or if it’s time for professional guidance.