Around the age of 4 years, most children begin to ask about death. It surfaces in their play, they say things like, “I’m gonna kill you,” they ask if you are going to die, among other questions and references. Unless they have experienced death at a younger age, this curiosity and sometime seeming obsessiveness are age appropriate and typical. It is a part of growing up.
The answers to these questions are hard for all parents. No one wants to create fear or pain for her/his child. But the answers, loaded though they are, are kind of stock. Death is the one great reality of life. Everything that is alive will die. And, in case you need a refresher, I devoted an entire chapter, ”Why is My Goldfish Floating in the Toilet? Learning About Death” in my first book, Just Tell Me What to Say.
When death is unanticipated, untimely, or just plain shocking, it is a different story. Hearing the news this morning of the death of Kobe Bryant and his daughter and seven others in a helicopter crash is staggering. Every adult who heard this news likely had a reaction similar to “Oh My Gosh, that is horrible news! I just can’t believe it! As adults we understand it, shocking as it is. But we are really sad.
Helping children and teens to understand this tragedy invites not only a different conversation but also a different brand of attention from you. Your children know about death on a cognitive level. But many children have never experienced death beyond a pet or a gold fish or someone distant. And when death comes to an especially beloved public figure, it feels like you actually lost a friend, someone you knew. The child will experience this death as if it were someone close, making it surreal and emotional. Many will feel it deeply. Even I, not much of a basketball fan, feel this loss in a different way. It feels personal.
Here are some tips for helping your child to process an untimely and unanticipated death, beyond what you have said about dying at an old age.
Be available. Each person responds to loss differently. Some are talkers and questioners; some keep it inside. It is a good idea to be close by to receive those questions and to be quietly supportive. Do not act as if nothing has happened.
Express your own feelings. If you have them, share with your child directly or within earshot how surprised and/or sad you are. Doing so makes it okay for him/her to do the same. Being sad together often helps the pain. However, be careful not to overdo it and thereby overload your child.
It’s okay to be emotional. Children learn that adults do feel deeply by watching you. It IS alright to cry. You model not only expressing your sadness but beyond that, how life does go on.
Beware of your little ones’ ears. You know your children, and you know who should and who should not hear the news of an untimely death. It is amazing how easily children hear what they should not. Be careful.
The helicopter is the hard part. People are not supposed to die in airplanes or helicopters or cars. We assure our children that we and they are safe. We certainly don’t respond to the child who asks if the plane is going to crash, “Well, I hope not.” We say, “NO! This plane is not going to crash.” And then this happened. With younger children (elementary school age) you respond by saying:
“The helicopter crash was really unusual. It is so rare that this happens. But once in a long long while, something goes wrong. And it’s horrible. The truth is, you don’t hear about the thousands and thousands and thousands of helicopters that fly safely every single day. But hearing about that one that did crash makes us think that it happens all the time.”
When the child says, But why?…” As children try to wrap their arms around an idea or something they don’t want to hear or do, they often say “Why?” While many of us want to know what happened to the helicopter in which Kobe Bryant was flying, the child’s Why? goes beyond that. The child’s Why? might be saying that s/he doesn’t get it or she doesn’t like it or cannot accept it. That particular Why? can be answered with an acknowledgment of how hard it is to believe. Don’t get caught trying to explain it over and over. It won’t help. You can say that you know how hard it is to believe or understand that this happened.
Be prepared for anxiety. It would not be surprising for previously unfazed children to become nervous about planes, helicopters, cars or whatever was the cause of an unexpected death. They may become anxious about their own safety and yours. Some children will be hard pressed to accept your reassurance that the flight you are about to board will not crash. In such a case you validate the child’s fears and share that you know why s/he is feeling that way, saying that you are confident that you will all be safe.
In addition, the news of untimely death might fuel regressions in different areas. A child may have wakeful nights, have trouble separating at school, may need to remain close at other times, may be distracted or nervous, may experience a loss of appetite, etc… Acknowledge and accept your child’s needs and be patient with him/her. If after some time (6 weeks is a good measure), the child’s anxiety has not dissipated and in fact gotten worse, you may need to seek the help of a mental health professional. But usually, after a time, things will go back to your child’s normal.
Additional anxiety. Not only did Kobe Bryant die but so did his daughter (and three others.) Some children will extrapolate right away and ask about Vanessa Bryant (his wife) and the children who lost their father and their sibling. These children may have a high degree of empathy that leads to their feelings for the remaining family. How I wish there were something you could can say to assuage that concern. Validating how sad it must be for them is where your conversation begins, agreeing with your child. Also it is a good idea to discuss all the family and friends who will help to take care of that family.
Reassure your children. While it is true that we cannot promise 100% safety and well-being, it is important to reiterate all the ways that we are safe in our world. Most helicopters (and other transportation) don’t crash because they go through rigorous safety checks. We are so much safer in today’s world than we have ever been. You can elaborate about all the people whose job it is to keep us safe (police, firefighters, security guards, etc..), an we have seat belts, airport security, and metal detectors, etc.. But sometimes accidents do happen. It’s not very often, but they do happen. And remember, your young children just want to know that they and you ARE safe. I encourage you to tell them that. And if you get, “how do you know?” with a young child, you get to say, “I know. I am your father and I will keep you safe.” With your older child and certainly with your more precocious child, be prepared to be challenged! The best we can do is say something like, “If I had the power, I would make sure you are 100% always safe in everything you do. But we both know that is just not possible. But I sure am trying. Nothing is more important to me than your safety.”
What to do. Do not belittle your child’s feelings, concerns, or questions. While it is not a good idea to rush the child through his/her own process of understanding and acceptance, it does help to add an additional focus. The child may be stuck on the sad reality. You can talk about all of Kobe Bryant’s amazing qualities and accomplishments. Not only can you discuss the way you will remember him, but you can talk about all the good he did for the Lakers, for basketball, the Oscar he won last year, and whatever else you know.
This might be a good opportunity to discuss the two parts that all people have: a body and a soul. Kobe Bryant’s soul will always be felt in the many fantastic things he accomplished and brought to our world. Souls live on. (There is more on describing a soul in the chapter on death in Just Tell Me What to Say.) And, of course, know that you may be opening a can of worms that is filled with more questions. I think that’s a good thing!
Life goes on. Hard to believe though it is, children will learn by experience that life goes on. I honestly thought I would ever get over my own mother’s death. Her death is no longer debilitating as it felt when it happened. Life went on. Children need to learn that most feelings ebb and flow. We feel strongly and then the feelings dissipate. That is an important part of life. Another lesson is that part of life is being sad. Life is filled with all kinds of big feelings. Sometimes it is hard for sad feelings to go away. They linger and you need to experience them—really live with them—talk about them. You just need to be sad. And then, you look back and realize you are not as sad as you were. To work on this lesson, take every opportunity to point out to your child how her feelings from this morning when she was so unhappy are not as powerful now. As hard as they are in the moment, feelings do change.
There are so many tough lessons our children need to experience on their journey of growing up. Untimely death is sadly one of them.