Frank Schofield, superintendent, Logan City School District
Raising children is a unique experience, filled with joys and challenges. Many of those challenges include opportunities to talk with children about experiences and situations that are emotionally difficult, and parents may struggle knowing how to manage those conversations. My family experienced this in January when a beloved uncle and grandfather both died in the same week. In addition to managing their own emotions, the adults were all required to have conversations with children about death, which few of us had consciously prepared for.
As I had these conversations with my family, I reflected on an episode of Sesame Street that aired on Thanksgiving Day 1983. Will Lee, the actor who played Mr. Hooper had recently died and the producers of the show decided to take the opportunity to talk with children about the death of a loved one through a conversation with Big Bird. In 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, National Public Radio spoke with Dr. Rosemarie Truglio, a developmental psychologist and the senior vice president of curriculum and content at Sesame Workshop, and Dr. Truglio identified six principles from that episode that illustrate tips for talking with children about the death of a loved one. Selections from that article, available through npr.org, are included here.
BE HONEST AND CONCRETE
When it comes to describing the what of death to children — what exactly happens to our bodies and what that means — Dr. Truglio says it’s important to be straightforward. That’s because children often struggle to grasp death’s permanence. Parents only complicate matters when they resort to euphemisms. In fairness, we do this to soften the blow, but Dr. Truglio says euphemisms can confuse and even scare children.
“Passed away. We’re sorry for your loss. Went on a long, long journey.” Dr. Truglio said each of these phrases sends the wrong message to kids. “The dead don’t pass, get lost, or pack a bag and start walking.” Instead, Dr. Truglio said, be perfectly clear:
“When you die, your heart stops. Your body stops working. You don’t eat. You don’t breathe — give more concrete information about what is the meaning of death,” Dr. Truglio said.
TAKE THINGS SLOWLY
Kids process death in bits and pieces, over time, Dr. Truglio says. Don’t sit them down once, overwhelm them with information and expect them to internalize it all.
Parenting a child through death requires patience and persistence. You may explain, clearly and in concrete terms, that Grandma has died and, three days later, be asked, “When’s Grandma coming back?”
Dr. Truglio says a hospice social worker who specialized in talking with children about death once likened this process to the way a child eats an apple:
“They take a bite, maybe two bites, then put it down,” Truglio said. “That’s probably how they’re going to experience death as well. They’re gonna take a couple of bites. They’re gonna go on with their lives. And then they’re gonna come back, and they’re gonna take a couple more bites.”
IT TAKES A VILLAGE
Often, the death of a loved one can be destabilizing for a child, not simply because that person will no longer be in their lives but because it can stir deep fears of being alone or abandoned. That’s why, Dr. Truglio says, when a child is mourning, make sure the child knows “that there are many people in their lives — there are grandparents, there are aunts, there are uncles, there are some really, really good friends who are like family.”
In short, Dr. Truglio says, children need to be reassured: “You will always be cared for.”
GROWN-UPS, IT’S OK TO CRY.
One of the most powerful moments in Sesame Street’s half-century history came as actor Bob McGrath, who played a music teacher on the show, took his turn consoling Big Bird after Big Bird expressed his frustration that things wouldn’t be the same without Mr. Hooper.
“You’re right, Big Bird. It’ll never be the same around here without [Mr. Hooper]. But you know something?” McGrath said through tears, his voice halting. “We can all be very happy that we had a chance to be with him and to know him and to love him a lot when he was here.”
It was a remarkably tender and honest display of emotion between an adult — who was, in fact, mourning his friend and colleague — and the childlike Big Bird. And this, Dr. Truglio said, sent a powerful message to parents and kids alike.
“It’s important for children to see us grieve. We’re gonna cry, and I think that you need to explain why you’re crying. This isn’t gonna be just a one-time event.” That’s especially true if you, the parent, are mourning the death of someone close to you. This will be a long process. Showing emotion and explaining the feelings that underlie those emotions help prepare children for future moments when you may, again, feel overwhelmed by grief.
THE FUNERAL RULE
When it comes to funerals, Dr. Truglio has this advice: Give children a choice.
“You should never say, ‘You have to do this,’ or make them feel guilty if they choose not to participate,” Dr. Truglio said. “You need to give them that wiggle room. You can’t force them.”
But tell them what to expect, whatever they choose. So, if you’re going to a funeral with an open casket, explain what that will mean. Again, be clear and concrete. Then let the child decide if she thinks she’s ready for that.
KEEP THE HOPE ALIVE
Finally, Dr. Truglio said, it’s important to convey to your child that “life is going to go on. We’re going to be OK. It’s a tough time right now, but we have things to look forward to.”
One activity she recommends is having your child trace her hand on a sheet of paper and, for each finger, ask her to list something that she’s looking forward to. It could be camping in the backyard or baking a favorite dessert. The point, Dr. Truglio says, is to keep the hope alive.
All parents know their children will eventually experience the death of someone they love. As parents plan for those conversations, they can be better prepared to talk about death and grieving in ways that help children face the sadness they may initially feel while also finding hope and peace in the love from the other adults who continue to care for them.