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Special thank you to Dr. Korie Leigh for her contribution to the tips and resources sections at the end of this post! Dr. Leigh is a professor of child life, Certified Child Life Specialist, Certified Thanatologist and functional medicine health coach.
I had just finished painting my nails. My family was heading out for pizza and games on a Friday night and Olivia wanted her nails painted. It was nice one-on-one time and an opportunity to freshen up my appearance, something I don’t do as much as I would like to as a busy mom of two little ones.
After her nails had dried, my 3 turning 13-year-old stated she also needed to brush her teeth before leaving. This is embarrassing to share, but after retrieving her toothbrush Olivia noticed how dirty our master bathroom sink was and returned to hers to add water to her brush. I sat there nodding in agreement, looking at the Scrubbing Bubbles on the counter right next to where she had been. Sorry kid, no time for that now and my nails are still wet! I turned to my phone to scroll Instagram as I waited for my nails to dry.
Reading Sad News
She returned again with the footstool she was using to cart back and forth and began brushing. I let out a little gasp and “aw” as I read to myself the announcement from the Milwaukee County Zoo sharing that 31-year-old gorilla, Cassius, had died. In those split seconds, I reflected how it now made sense that we could only get a glimpse of one of the gorillas on our visit to the zoo the day prior. We usually see all of the gorillas and it has become a favorite exhibit to visit. I had no idea the zoo keepers had taken Cassius for some medical tests that day. One of the zoo volunteers actually noted the gorillas were hanging out way in the back and without some up-close action, my young family didn’t have the patience to stick around very long. Still, something unexplainable felt weird to me that we didn’t see much “activity” and I now I realized this feeling was a premonition.
“What Mom?” Olivia asked sweetly. I snapped back to the present moment and looked up at my innocent, inquisitive, caring little girl. I always knew I was going to be honest with my children about death, but I envisioned having time to prepare precisely how I would lead the conversation, the way I had done dozens of times before when working in children’s hospitals. I suppose I was naïve to think that!
I said, “A gorilla named Cassius died. He was too sick and we won’t see him at the zoo anymore. I’m sad.” She immediately said, “oh, we can fix him.” I replied, “no, we can’t fix someone who has died. His family is sad.” She then said “oh, let’s fix them,” as in let’s help make them feel better. She continued “I want to make the gorilla’s family happy…I want to.”
In retrospect, I wish I would’ve known the age-span of gorilla’s in that moment so that it would’ve felt natural for me to say “the grandpa gorilla named Cassius who lives at the zoo died” and specifically named his heart as what was too sick. I’m sharing this because if you’re feeling anxious about talking to your own children about death, know that this is very normal. It can be challenging, especially if this is a personal or animal very dear to your heart. Keep it simple, honest and follow their lead.
Learning about this news and sharing it with my daughter in this way was very unexpected. As I said, I always knew that I would be open and honest with my children in discussing death. Teaching children about death in a concrete way empowers understanding and can foster use of positive coping strategies. In this situation, I was on the spot and still chose to answer timely and as honestly as possible. As you will see in the video, I got a little caught up with my words. Here’s what I caught on video after my initial response.
What Happened Next
Olivia went to her room to have “special alone time” and I followed moments after. She was acting out appropriate emotions of sadness. Her head and eyebrows lowered, lips pouted and her body was turned away from me slightly. With children at her development, I know that they don’t fully understand the concept of death. Death is not seen as permanent. Another layer is that Olivia doesn’t have a relationship or even a strong understanding of who Cassius was, other than me just identifying he was one of the gorillas at the zoo we visit. I knew she was acting and demonstrating her understanding of how to respond when given sad news, which is what I was hoping to see.
I then asked her if there was anything I could do to make her feel better. I gave her a few suggestions: a hug from mommy or a stuffed animal or for “Mommy to be silly.” If you know my daughter, you know she went for the silly. I randomly chose to “moo like a frog” and “tweet like a bunny.” This immediately made her chuckle and she said “noooooo! That’s not right!” Then with a very big grin and arms thrown in the air she said, “I’m happy now!”
A Moment of Reflection
I walked away satisfied with our little talk. Sure, there were a few slip ups. I might have missed an opportunity to clarify that Cassius was dead and “that means he cannot play with his toys, but it does mean that his family might be able to play with his toys when they miss him.” Or simply that the caretakers are called “zoo keepers.” I tend to overanalyze too much though, so I’m going to choose to see the positives of this unexpected and often challenging topic to talk about.
Introducing Concept of Death with Young Children
It’s important to be honest with young children and provide them with opportunities to learn about emotions and model safe and healthy ways to process and cope. I think it’s helpful to give young children an introduction to the concept of death when you have news of someone or some other being dying that they were not especially close with. It can help you feel more comfortable and confident in talking to your children about death of a close loved one when that time comes. And since young, developing children understand new and abstract concepts best in doses, this introduction will aid in their understanding of death and what it means for them to not be able to physically see, hear, touch, and play with that special someone or animal in the future.
Tips for Talking to a Young Child about Death:
Use concrete words (dead, died, dying) and explain that this means the body is not able to think, breathe, eat, or play on its own. Dead means the body stops working.
To the best of your ability, avoid euphemistic language such as “they passed away,” “went to heaven,” “was lost,” or “is gone.”
The concept of afterlife, such as heaven, is an abstract thought and young children truly do not understand this concept. If they overhear and ask what it is or your family feels strongly about incorporating this narrative, you could say, “Our family believes that when someone dies they go to heaven. Z will not come back from heaven because s/he is dead. We cannot go to heaven yet because we are alive, not dead. We can still think and talk about Z even though s/he isn't alive anymore.”
This information is not to challenge religious or spiritual beliefs, but is intended to best support the young child’s understanding based on their cognitive development.
Describe how you feel and healthy ways you cope with grief.
The first conversation may be brief and children often need to talk about it in doses in order to process the abstract concept
These conversations often take place over time. Except that your child will ask and continue to be curious about the death. Even though you may have explained it time and time before, be prepared to hold the conversation many times.
If they can’t think of ways that will help them feel better, you can say something like “this isn’t something that any of us wanted to happen and it isn’t anyone’s fault. It’s okay to feel sad, angry, confused, but it is also okay to still feel happy after someone dies. Other kids say it helps to give a parent/aunt/friend/etc a hug, talk to someone, draw a picture, or play to help them feel better.”
If the child/children are open in conversation, a therapeutic approach is to ask open-ended questions about positive memories about the person/animal that died (e.g. What was your favorite thing to play when you and X spent time together? Or to gain a deeper understanding of what a child already knows asking ‘“what do you think dead means?”
Understanding that as children enter into and out of developmental stages, they will revisit their grief in new ways. As such, children will continually grieve a death that happened years ago.
A child’s grief looks and is experienced very differently from adults. You may notice your child is very tearful or full of big emotions, and then turn out to find them playing the next. This is normal and a wonderful way that children learn how to process their emotions and experiences.
What Will I Tell the Children: Helping Your Children Cope with Death. Published by Nebraska Medicine.
How I Feel: A Coloring Book for Grieving Children. Written by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D. You can purchase a sympathy gift that includes this resource here.
Thank you to those who joined Dr. Korie Leigh and I for our Instagram Live chat exploring the complex topic of death and how to navigate it with young children. I hope you found it helpful as a parent and/or health care professional! Here are additional resources Dr. Leigh recommended: