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When A Loved One Dies, What Should I Tell My Child?

At the time of the Challenger explosion, I was called upon to suggest ways in which parents might shield their children from the anguish of that tragedy. For children, the death of teacher Christa McAuliffe was an intensely personal loss. Youngsters all over America identified with her family and her students, who had been watching television when the rocket exploded. Children grieved for her and asked questions like these: "Why did that mommy get lost? Where is she now?" "Why did she leave her children? Were they bad?" Underneath these particular questions are the universal ones that all children ask about death: "Why did that person I loved leave me? Was it because I was bad?" "If I get angry at someone, will that make them die?" "Will my parents die?" "Will I die?" "When you die, are you really alive somewhere else?" "Where does your body go?" "Why does death happen?" "What is death, anyhow?" Children feel responsible when someone dies, and that's why on that tragic day last year, I urged families to share the grief they were feeling.


Because death is considered an almost taboo subject in our culture, we have few opportunities to talk with our children about loss and grief. When a family member dies, we may be so overwhelmed by our own grief that we're unable to deal properly with grieving in our children. But when someone like Christa McAuliffe dies, someone we all admired, someone most of us didn't really know but felt we knew, we can talk about it as it were a personal loss. Children feel it that way, and by helping them deal with their feelings, we are preparing them for losses that may occur closer to home. When Christa McAuliffe died, I advised parents to reassure their children that the loss of a parent is not the child's responsibility and that it does not result from a child's bad deeds or wishes. I advised them that their youngsters needed to grieve with those children who had lost their mother or their teacher. Far from suggesting ways to "shield" children, I told parents that they could not and "should not" try to protect their children from ident ifying with the McAuliffe family. Grief is a vital and inevitable part of life, and longing for someone who has died adds an important dimension to a child's ability to care about others. The death of someone removed from your own family gives you a chance not only to share the sad, angry and guilty feelings your child is likely to have, but also to talk about your own feelings and your religious convictions. It is an important rehearsal for future losses.

T. Berry Brazelton, M.D.

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