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Telling Your Child Someone Has Died

Telling Your Child Someone Has Died

In memoriam Joyce Timothy Radojcic 1992-2020

Recently, my husband and I had to tell our three children that a friend had died. The children knew that Joyce had been missing for several months and his family and friends were desperately looking for him. 

Our children had responded to the initial news about Joyce going missing in different ways. One child firmly believed that Joyce was travelling and had just simply forgotten to call his mother. Another child sought reassurance that Joyce was fine and was trying to find explanations for his disappearance. Our third child was hopeful that we would receive good news but feared that harm would have come his way.

Joyce’s remains were found nine long months after his sudden and uncharacteristic disappearance.

While investigations into Joyce’s death are ongoing, we know that someone killed him. Joyce’s death was not an accident but a deliberate act of harm. 

Men are far more likely than women to die from homicide and injury. In some cases men’s higher death rate is associated with differences in lifestyle and attitude to risk. Joyce was your unlikeliest victim, though. He was the most gentle peace-loving person I have ever met. Joyce’s guiding principles in life were to nurture a healthy mind and body. He disappeared in the middle of the day on his way to meditate, not in a shady part of town in the middle of the night.

Breaking the news

My husband and I processed the tragic news for a day but knew that children should be told. With heavy hearts we sat them down and told them that Joyce was dead.

Just as the children had responded to Joyce’s disappearance differently, they responded to the news about his death in different ways. Their hearts broke but their responses varied.  While one went very quiet and retreated to their room, another was inconsolable for hours. The third child was angry and didn’t want to accept the news.

There is no right or wrong way to respond to loss.

It was crucial that the day we told our children that we were able to be there for them and support them in the ways that each of them needed support. While someone needs time to sit still, the other may have endless questions.

How to talk to your child about death

If you have to break sad news to your child, keep this in mind:

  1. Don’t delay sharing the news. Take a moment to process the news yourself and when you are ready, tell your child. Don’t wait too long in the hope of sparing your child’s feelings. They cannot be spared. Your child loved the person who has died. There is no love without the pain of goodbyes. Also, remember that even if you think that you are hiding your own grief, your child will sense that something that cannot be discussed is happening. This is scary and confusing. Even worse, your child may hear the news from someone else. You don’t want them to hear accidentally from the neighbors or listen in on a telephone call.
  2. Choose a quiet and calm environment. Don’t blurt out the news when you are in a rush or in a public place.
  3. Communicate clearly. A young child will not understand what ‘passed away’ means. You want them to understand what has happened rather than feel confused or misunderstand what has happened. 
  4. Allow your child time to process the news. They may need you for ten minutes or two hours. Let them take in the news at their own pace.
  5. Answer questions clearly and honestly but age appropriately. It’s ok not to have all the answers. I couldn’t answer most of my children’s questions. I don’t know who is responsible for Joyce’s death. Neither can I explain why bad things happen to good people. I also couldn’t promise that nothing will even happen to us parents. What I could do was be honest while being as comforting and supportive as possible.
  6. Allow space for grief but stick to normal routines as well. Even if you are stuck in your grief, your child will benefit if they keep their normal daily routines. It’s ok to play, see friends, go to school even when they are grieving. 
  7. Show your emotions. When you show your sadness and longing, it creates space for your child to show theirs. Share your happy, sad and funny memories about your loved one. Let your loved one continue living in your hearts. 

You need to be strong to deliver bad news. However difficult it is, remind yourself that your child is supported by you as you’re their safe person and the best to console them.

My children have all read this post and given me the permission to describe their response to loss. Joyce’s mother Vera has graciously given me her permission to use his name and she also shared with me her favorite image of Joyce– a picture of her and her son together.

Matleena Vanhanen is a licensed Counselling Psychologist with over 20 years of experience working in Europe and the Middle East. She has a practice of couples and individual therapy at the MapleTree Center in Dubai.

This article features the advice of a licensed expert, but it is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for advice, diagnosis or treatment from a trained professional. In an emergency, please seek help from your local medical or law enforcement services.

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