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How to talk to your kids about death

When Chadwick Boseman died on August 28, it was a big shock to many of us. Across the world, in homes and online, people mourned. And because Boseman played a beloved, history-making superhero, his death also touched the lives of children.

Chadwick Boseman at Comic Con
Image Source: Gage Skidmore 

When these sudden, tragic moments arrive, how do we talk with our kids about death? Is it appropriate to really teach our little ones about mortality? The short answer: yes. To get a better understanding of how to talk with our kids about death and grief, we had the privilege of learning more from Morinsola Keshinro, a child life specialist at Northridge Hospital Medical Center.   

How can we prepare children to understand what death is? 

Children are exposed to the concept of death in a variety of ways daily. Plants dying, electronic devices dying, video game/cartoon characters dying and then coming back to life. I have to say the way we talk about death prior to experiencing one will impact the way children process death, so preparing them about what death is, is important. A cell phone battery can be recharged, a human who has died cannot. Experience is often the teacher for many families and children can be supported during that process.

How can we speak with our children about death without scaring or overwhelming them? 

Keeping a child’s developmental level in mind is very important. The way you speak to a preschool age child will be different than how you would speak to a teenager. The most effective way to speak to children about death is to be truthful with information. Use the concrete word “dead” and phrases such as “their body stopped working.” Families try to shield children, which leaves children to use their imagination about what is going on. That imagination is often times worse than the truth. Leave opportunities for them to ask questions, and if you do not know the answer, that is ok.

In consoling fears about death, how can we appease our children?

Younger children commonly feel a death is their fault. It is important to reassure them that nothing they could have said or done caused the death as thoughts and words don’t make people die. Be patient with young children and prepare yourself to have to repeat about a death being forever. Give children an opportunity to play and draw about the death. Reading children’s books about loss and death that are age appropriate may be helpful. Older children may have wished they would have said or done something differently before a death and express regret and guilt. Give them an opportunity to write or draw about what they wanted to say or do. Give children and teens the opportunity to express their feelings in age appropriate ways. Teenagers may feel the sense of added responsibilities with the death of a family member and will need support to relieve them of the burden of adult responsibilities.

How is religion part of this conversation? 

Include your family’s religious beliefs when discussing death with your children. I recommend not using phrases that say a deity “took” someone to be with them or that a person “went to sleep” or “passed away”. They are difficult for children to understand and may make them fearful of sleeping or develop a fear of being taken away suddenly. Create space for children of all ages to view and participate in religious customs and expressions. Allow children the opportunity to opt out as well.

In what ways can I support my child if they’ve experienced a relatively high amount of deaths?

Every child responds to death in their own way. Educate yourself on the most common reactions children and teens have to death and model healthy grieving for them. If you are angry, sad or scared, it is ok for your child to see you crying. Encourage your child to express their feelings. This models for them that people can have a range of feelings when someone dies. Set limits on unacceptable behavior and keep your child’s routines as best you can. 

Do you have any recommendations for communicating with my child about a famous person who recently died? 

With many children having independent access to technology, they may be exposed to the death of a celebrity before caregivers can share the news with them. I recommend asking children what they know and see what they say. Clear up any misconceptions about the death and validate their feelings of sadness and/or anger. Spend some time reflecting on the things they appreciated about the person and explore ways in how they may want to honor that person. Examples could be post a message on social media, dress up as that celebrity around the house or for Halloween, make a donation to a charity the celebrity supported, watch something this celebrity was in, put up a poster or draw a picture of them for a wall somewhere in the home. If you are confident your child does not know and you will break the news to them, prepare yourself for your child possibly becoming tearful, prepare to tell them in a safe space and remember to use concrete language.

What are your thoughts of the children who are honoring the death of Chadwick Boseman by setting up action figure funerals?

When children have organic expressions of grief, it is important to provide a safe space for them to do so. Play is the way children will express this. I fully support children using play to work through their grief. I encourage adults to ask children if they want something like this documented and shared online with others, as expressions of grief can be very personal. It is also important to differentiate the character T’Challa (Black Panther) from the person, Chadwick Boseman, who died of cancer. This opens an important dialogue about cancer and how people cannot catch cancer, as some children may have fears they can. Chadwick Boseman had cancer and his body couldn’t fight the illness anymore, causing his body to stop working. For many children, their concern will be that the Black Panther character will still exist and be available to them. That character still exists. They can brainstorm who they would like to take over as the Black Panther character moving forward similar to that of other superhero characters (Spiderman, Batman, Catwoman etc.)  and continue to watch the film, read the comics, play with the toys and wear the costumes.

Do you have any final thoughts? 

You as a parent know your child best. Some children are information seekers and others need less information. You will be able to recognize when they need more support than you alone can give. There are support services such as grief counselors, grief camps, chaplains, certified child life specialists, online support groups, social workers and psychologists that can be of support to you and your family during a time of grief and loss.  

Haley Bosselmanhttps://haleybosselman.wordpress.com/
Haley Bosselman is the former editor-in-chief of Culturas. She holds degrees in journalism from Arizona State University and the University of Southern California. Based in Los Angeles, she writes about arts, entertainment and culture.
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