Trigger warning: child loss
When I look back on it all, I can’t say that I told my children their sister died in the right way.
In the wake of such trauma, one of my main concerns was protecting my kids from as much of it as I could. And in all honesty, I didn’t know how to relay such devastating news to them, knowing it would break their hearts alongside mine. So I did the best I could with what I knew then, and explained it to them in kid-like terminology — hopeful that with my soft words, they might catch a break from the full force of it all, even if for just a moment.
“Where’s Yainey?” my toddler asked me with such innocence. She meant to say Lainey, but being as young as she was, her little sister was always her “Yainey.” She asked me in a way that felt almost as if she were expecting my response to be that she was right behind us, that she would be home any minute.
I wish more than anything that could have been my answer to her, but it wasn’t. With little to no preparation, I was forced to tell my surviving children that their world was turned upside down.
I sat her and her twin brother down, and with a voice that kept breaking, I told them, “Lainey had to go bye-bye.”
When I think back on this day and the immediate ones that followed, I know that they didn’t understand the magnitude of what I was telling them at first. To them, going “bye-bye” meant that you were going to the grocery store or work and would be coming back shortly. But as time moved on, and their sister still hadn’t returned, I noticed them developing problems with this phrase as a direct result of how I chose to use it.
They began to associate someone going “bye-bye” with meaning that they wouldn’t ever be coming back, and separation anxiety kicked in full force. Because on the day that their sister died, in their childlike minds, that is exactly what happened… their sister went “bye-bye,” and she never returned.
Now, because of the mistakes I made when speaking to my children about death for the very first time, I’ve been forced to recognize the importance of talking to young children about the hard topics, like death, before they have a chance to affect them personally.
Because whether you have to tell your kids that their goldfish isn’t sleeping, or you find yourself like me, having to look your kids in the eyes and say that their brother or sister is never coming back home, all of our children will encounter death at some point in their lives. As their parents, it is our job to educate and prepare them for that eventual reality to the very best of our ability, even when it’s uncomfortable.
We shouldn’t instill a sense of fear or overall panic into the hearts and minds of our young children, but we should guide them in a way that helps them see death as a natural event, not some evil or mystical happening. That even when its appearance is devastating, untimely, and makes us shed a million tears, it’s all so normal.
Even more so, that it is an okay thing to talk about — “dead” is not a dirty word.
Something as simple as the language we choose to use when addressing what death entails can make or break a child’s current and future way of perceiving and coping — not only with own their grief, but the grief of others, too. We can’t use glittery euphemisms to guard our children when we are talking about something that carries such a weight. As hard as it is to discuss death and grief, particularly with children, they have a right to know the truth in a way that is not dumbed down — just like all of us do.
There’s no denying that it’s easier to use the go-to sayings like “they passed away,” “they are at rest,” or even, “they had to go bye-bye” when someone we love dies, but at what cost to them? Despite how well-meaning the intentions may be, phrases like these, the ones that try to make death and dying into something that it isn’t, have the potential to create several layers of uncertainty in a child’s mind regarding what takes place in the event of death.
As heart-wrenching as it may be for us, being candid with our kids by practicing realistic language in the death department is the most impactful way to help them in the long run.
“We put the dog to sleep. That’s a really big one,” Rosemarie Trugio, a developmental psychologist, tells NPR . “If you’re telling me now that the dog went to sleep and is not going to wake up and died, well, I go to sleep every night. Am I going to die?”
There’s a reason we use these glossed-over sayings. You see, with the medical advancements of today’s world, people are living life spans that are unprecedented in the centuries before us. Because of this, and the overall lack of community care in modern America, our society has become closed off when attempting to understand death and grief.
There was a time in our history where it wasn’t like this. Where people didn’t feel the need to hide their grief, and the support they received was plentiful. Even still, in other parts of the world, different cultures play an integral role in the final days of those who are dying, as well as those who are newly bereaved.
Here in the States today, however, this is something we just don’t have, and if it hasn’t personally happened to you already, then be prepared. Because you and your child will eventually suffer from it.
The good news is that we have a chance to change it. We are raising up an entire generation of people, and as their parents, we have the power to make a difference in the way our kids choose to view, deal, and help others with death and grief. With our willingness, and a little bit of patience and understanding on both ends, we can break this cycle.
This doesn’t mean that you have to know everything by any means. Please understand this: it is okay that you don’t. You aren’t expected to know it all. Tell your children “I don’t know” when they have questions you can’t possibly answer.
It’s okay if the topic makes you emotional from past experiences. Grief brings up all of the feelings, and it is so damn good for your kids to see a visual representation of someone in the midst of mourning. Tell your children that you miss your grandma, uncle, cousin, sister, or daughter. Feeling sad about a loss in front of your kids doesn’t make you a weak parent, it makes you a human one.
Clue your child in to the fact that once we are all gone, we are but stories to be told in this world, and then tell them all of the stories about someone you loved who had to go too soon. The sad ones, the mundane ones, the exciting ones, and the funny ones that leave the entire room in stitches. It is healthy for our kids to see that grief and joy can and do coexist.
Resist the urge to stay silent because of your own discomfort or upbringing. This world is full of grieving people, and they only grow in number each and every day. Vow to be a household that teaches its young people that there is no shame in dying.
Above all, raise little people into adults who help the bereaved feel a little more seen.