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Teaching Children About Death

by on Feb.26, 2010, under Learning, Parenting, Transitions

A mom called me from New York today. In a panic she explained that her mother was in the last stages of   her life and what on earth would she tell her child.  She said she needed a crash course in death.  So sad for her, but good for her.

There are parents of young children who will read the title of this blog, shake their heads, and walk–no run– away from the computer. Don’t do it!  Children need to learn about death, and they should learn about it from you.  Death is the one great inevitability in life. Everything that is alive will die one day.

Take a minute and read the article I wrote on the topic last summer.  You’ll be glad you did. It’s always better to be prepared before you need to be.

P.S.  As if I am prescient, yesterday tragically a 13 year old girl was killed by a car as she crossed the street to catch the school bus. In front of her mother’s eyes, she was hit by the car, as she crossed against the red light. 

In response to the many inquiries I have received about  how to talk to your (older) kids about this horrible accident, I have written the following:

Points and Talking Points to Use in Processing

the Tragic , Accidental Death of Julia Siegler


  1.  Your first job is to listen. Allow and encourage your child to talk, feel, emote without necessarily commenting.
  2. Rather than trying to make it better, merely validate his feelings.  I know. I know. It is the most awful thing imaginable. It’s unthinkably tragic.
  3. Answer his questions as best as you can. Share what you know, the whole story.
  4. Be sad together. Don’t brush your or his feelings off.
  5. Allow and encourage your child (especially teen aged) to be with his friends. The most comfort and support is found in groups of friends. 
  6. People process and mourn in different ways. Just because your child isn’t crying or talking doesn’t mean he isn’t feeling. Sometimes your own sadness is a vent for your child. But be careful not to dwell or impose your feelings on him.
  7. Expect your child to have a reaction. He may want to stay close to home. He may want to be alone. He may become sullen, fearful of going out, nightmares, lots of questions about safety. Questions about God, fairness in the world, BIG questions will come up. (How we all wish we had questions to these.  But remember, it was an accident; it isn’t about a greater plan or about fairness.)
  8. Know this:  It was an accident. That is what the word means…it wasn’t supposed to happen. It may not have been anyone’s fault. Just an accident.
  9. These kinds of accidents usually don’t happen . They are the exception. Remind your child about all the airplanes that get through each day about which we don’t hear. We only hear about the ones that crash. That makes it seem like they happen all the time, but they don’t. Accidents don’t usually happen; they are the exceptions.   Children cross streets safely all the time. This was an exception.
  10. Your child doesn’t need to live in fear.  (see #9, above.) Help him to know that it is typical to be extra frightened or vigilant and cautious after an accident. Everyone is more aware and frightened right now.
  11. People have a need to blame someone. It takes the anger and hurt and puts it somewhere. But sometimes there isn’t anyone to blame. It IS just an accident, a horrible accident.
  12. There is energy and power that accompanies the anger one feels over this horrible kind of accident. Put that energy to use…write a note, cook a meal, offer to help at the house.   Helping in this way is symbiotic:   It helps you do something with that energy and it genuinely helps the bereaved.
  13. As the dust begins to settle (and that will take some time), help your child to do (create) something to memorialize Julia.  Perhaps her friends (and their families) will start a foundation, a charity, raise funds for something in Julia’s name. Create a cause.
  14. Keep her memory alive. Photos, memorabilia, discussions about what you remember help kids to learn that people live on within us.
  15.  Listen Listen Listen Listen!
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