NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
COPING WITH LOSS
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.
Q. Since her great-grandfather died a few weeks ago, my 4-year-old daughter asks constantly about death. She asks why and how my mother died (which happened before my daughter was born). She wants to know if we parents will die at the same time, and who will look after her. It’s hard to be honest without scaring her.
We aren’t religious, so a lot of my answers are, “I don’t know.” What is best to say? Or not to say? My mother died from smoking. Is it too early for that information?
A. Clear, simple information is the key to helping your daughter cope with frightening things that are hard for any of us to understand. You needn’t explain more than what’s required for her age – just tell her enough so she can trust you to guide her through these challenges.
Sometimes language that is meant to be reassuring confuses and worries children. “He died in his sleep,” for example, makes many children scared to go to bed. A little reliable information makes the world seems less frightening to a child. Maria Trozzi, author of “Talking with Children about Loss,” suggests saying, “Most people do not die until they are very, very, very old.”
If your daughter asks why, you might reply, “After living for a very, very, very long time, great-grandpa’s body wore out. When people grow very, very, very old, their bodies just stop working.”
You can add, convincingly, that you and your parents are not very, very, very old, and that your bodies are working fine. It’s not critical for your daughter to know now about your mother’s smoking. Since people are likelier to die younger if they smoke, your child might wonder why anybody would ever do such a thing. It’s not dishonest to save this explanation for later.
Most important is that your daughter knows you are always ready to listen and that you will do your best to answer her questions.
Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.
Dr. Brazelton, prior to his passing, was the founder and head of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is currently the Director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.
Reprinted with permission from the authors.