Parenting

Talking to kids about death

When the father of her son's friend passes away, Karine wonders how to approach the situation.

Image by LCBallard/iStockphoto.com

A few weeks ago, our eldest son, Wyatt, came home from school and said his friend Nicholas’ father passed away. “The teacher read us books,” he told my husband Jay and I, “and she said Nick would be away for awhile and we should make him a card.” He walked away without much drama, giving Jay and I a moment to process the information.
 
After my initial thoughts of how difficult it must be for Nicholas’s family, my thoughts selfishly turned to my kids: Watching Bambi when I was a child scared me for life, and I will never forget the endless nights I lay awake worried that my mom or dad (strangely, mostly my mom) was going to die. How were my husband and I going to handle this?

We talked about not giving too much information, and letting Wyatt ask the questions. We reminded each other how it was important not to lie and make false promises, but to remind Wyatt that our family tries to lead healthy lives. My husband is not overly religious, but I was raised Anglican, so I have some thoughts on God that we’ve taught our kids, and we recognized this could potentially offer a little bit of solace. And then we waited.

And, nothing happened. Wyatt never brought it up again. The next day, I was left wondering if we should bring up the potentially scarring subject, or if we should wait to see if Wyatt (or any of our other three kids) wanted to talk about it.
 
So, I did what I always do when I am indecisive: I went with my gut. Which told me to wait a few days, and if Wyatt didn’t bring it up, wait for a quiet opportunity and ask him if Nicholas was back at school yet. His reaction would tell me whether to push further, or leave it alone.

Wyatt did bring it up again, but not in the way I had anticipated. He came home from school one afternoon and said, “Nicky was back at school. It’s too bad about his dad.” He sounded somewhat sympathetic, and at the same time, wise beyond his seven years. I was reminded once again that sometimes parenting is all about taking cues from our kids, and letting them guide us to the right responses. I still wonder if I let a teachable moment pass, but have to admit, I am glad to have dodged a potentially huge bullet for a little bit longer.