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Mindful : October 2015
that every situation is different, as is every child. “There’s a lot of room for judgment calls, and parents making choices with what they’re most comfortable with at the time,” he said. “ Ulti- mately the parent knows the child best, so they have to trust their instincts.” However, letting the child know that their feelings are normal is key. “There’s plenty of room for anger, sadness and confusion,” he added. “Create a space where they can safely discharge their emotions with- out judgment.” “So I didn’t traumatize my child that morning over breakfast when I told her that dead people don’t see?” I asked him. “Hardly,” he replied. “Parents need to be OK with their child being scared and uncertain. Often, it’s not about us providing them with the answers, as much as creating the space for them to explore their own feelings.” My friend Misty Lebowitz is one of the moms I spoke to during the course of my research. She learned the importance of telling children the truth about death the hard way. When her own father died when she was just 14, no one in her family talked to her about it, leaving her heart- broken and confused. So when her sons’ g rand- father was diagnosed with cancer when the boys were eight and 12, Misty delivered the news straight. “ Your grandfather has cancer,” she told them. “The doctor said he would live only for a few more months. He loves you, but he doesn’t want any visitors. So let’s make him some videos to tell him we love him.” Misty set up the video camera and gave the boys privacy to express themselves. “There were a lot of tears after Grandpa died,” she told me, “ but at least we knew the boys were aware of what was going on.” Two years later, she recounted, the fami- ly’s beloved dog, Maddox, died unexpectedly late one night. She was rushed to the vet, but nothing could be done to save her. Misty insisted on waking up the boys so they could see their dog before she died. “My mom told me I was crazy,” she said, “but I knew it would be worse if Maddox just vanished.” The boys got to hold her and kiss her before she took her last breath. “They were grateful to get to say goodbye to her and to see that she wasn’t in pain,” Misty said. Months later, her 14-year-old son wrote a heart-wrenching poem about Maddox, and the grief and loneliness he felt without her. He read it to his entire school. Still, I wondered, what about kids and funer- als? Should we take them or not? In What Do We Tell the Children?, Primo writes, “Funerals can help kids do their grief warmth, encouragement, and a willingness to not know, yet to be present. We want our kids to know that they can tackle all things when they are sur- rounded by people who love them,” he said. When Death Is a Reality So far my talks with Opal were about death in the abstract. But I couldn’t help wondering what to say when she experiences the death of someone close to her. Her 92-year-old Papa Jack and our grumpy but sweet old cat, Gilda, are beloved members of our family nearing the end of their lives. Joseph Primo offered some guidelines: “The D-word is critical, not ‘passing away.’ To help children understand ‘deadness,’ they need lan- guage and facts to imagine it and to wrestle with it.” He added that metaphors and commonplaces can be incorporated into the conversation if they’re important to you, but that’s not the best place to start. He also recommended saying essentially the same things to a five-year-old as you’d say to a 10-year-old or a teenager. “ Name the specific dis- ease or reason for dying, otherwise the child will imagine something worse,” he advised. “Give enough information to help the child under- stand the situation and what’s happening. That’s the ultimate goal. Then pause, create the space for her to process, to explore, to ask questions. Prioritize how many facts you give. See how the child responds, then say more, depending on what they’re looking for.” Chances are, you won’t go into the same kind of detail with a five-year- old as you will with older children, since younger kids are less able to absorb a lot of information. When I asked Primo if he could provide me with a specific list of things to say to different age groups, he told me he couldn’t, emphasizing “Often, it’s not about us providing them with the answers, as much as creating the space for them to explore their own feelings.” Joseph Primo, president of the National Alliance for Grieving Children and author of What Do We Tell the Children? 62 mindful October 2015 parenting