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How do you talk to children about death?

by | Feb 29, 2020 | Children In Divorce, Emotional Support And Divorce |

I was moved by the tribute to Kobe and Gianna Bryant on Monday. While Kobe Bryant was a talented player who gave us many memorable duels with my beloved Spurs, it was Gianna’s death that especially got to me — she was still so young, clearly had so much promise, and had so much more life to live.

That got me thinking about talking to children about death. Working in family law means that we work with two of the most emotionally vulnerable groups of children possible: Those who are experiencing divorce, and those who are experiencing the turmoil that come with CPS cases. Though we don’t directly do the emotional work of helping children through these situations, we work closely with the mental health professionals who do.

The death of a celebrity like Kobe Bryant impacts people in different ways: There’s certainly not a single way or predictable way or “right” way that people react to such news. People can react in a way that’s totally wrapped up in just that situation, or it can trigger them, causing them to revisit past incidents reminiscent of that situation. For example, if you lost a parent in a car accident, news of the tragic helicopter accident could be enough to bring you back to the shock and the hurt of that loss in your own life.

Children, who are still developing and learning their emotions, are especially susceptible to a range of reactions when it’s a celebrity they recognize. There was an excellent, recent Huffington Post article, “How to Talk to Kids About the Death of Their Celebrity Hero,” that could really apply to any situation involving children and grief and loss.

One of the most important pieces of advice in the article is “validate their feelings.” As she notes:

For children who have little experience with trauma or death, the death of a beloved public figure may be overwhelming as they feel scary, unfamiliar emotions. Parents have a duty to normalize these feelings, encourage their kids to talk about them, and prepare them for the emotional shifts they may experience.

The article also makes the observation that it’s a non-linear process. As much as we like to think about the five stages of grief and a discernible journey that ends in acceptance, we know that’s not exactly the case — especially for children.

As the author puts it, a child reporting on feeling anger at the helicopter pilot shouldn’t be told not to feel that way, but instead to acknowledge that the child feeling that anger and facilitating discussion by asking the child how it feels to have that anger.

It’s not easy to face death before you truly, fully know what it is, and it’s difficult to learn about death by being a survivor. It is indeed challenging for a child to experience big losses and uncertainty, including what might come as a result of a divorce or a CPS case. Even as we’re helping families legally reconcile issues, we know how important it is to have children heal emotionally from their losses … and we know how important it is for parents to validate their children’s feelings on the way to that.