Helping Children Talk to Their Friends About Death
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Creating positive peer relationships in the face of loss
One of the many difficult tasks bereaved Solo Moms must face is helping their children answer questions from their peer group about the death of a parent. Although a solo mother may wish to run some form of interference for her child, there is a wrenching inevitability that a child will need to field a question without parental assistance.
This article is intended to help Solo Moms help their children prepare to answer questions. Needless to say, the approach to answering these questions depends on the age of the children involved.
If children are very young, they have not yet developed a fear of death nor do they understand it as being permanent. Preschool students tend to be nonchalant about asking questions. If they learn that the father of a peer has died, they are likely to approach it in a matter-of-fact way, and the child who has experienced the death is likely to answer similarly.
Consider, too, that the child who has suffered the loss may have a fear of separation. His or her interactions with friends may be affected. For example, the friends might be encouraged to understand that the child wants to be friends and just needs a little time with his or her mother before returning to a game.
Conversations at this stage may be brief. For example, sitting on a carpet at circle time, Timmy might volunteer that he does not have a father—only a mother. Sam might ask where Timmy’s father went. Timmy might say that he died. Perhaps other children offer their experiences of death—a grandparent, a pet. The teacher might say that it is hard when bodies stop working and sometimes it makes people sad.
For the preschool set, questions tend to be direct. They are asked innocently and, as a result, may sometimes pack a punch. Children in preschool tend to act out events in play more than they discuss things; therefore, in helping your child in a preschool setting, communicate regularly with the teachers in the room to understand the games your child is playing and the questions that come up.
When questions do come up and a child cannot answer them, consider how you can help continue the conversation. Make sure to be reassuring and to answer only the question asked without going any broader.
For children in elementary school, questions may be a bit more nuanced. Overt expressions of empathy are likely to be a bit more developed, and peers may fear that they could experience parental death. Make sure to touch base with your child about special friendships and create opportunities to foster important relationships. If your child seems upset about a specific interaction or a friendship seems to have shifted, check in. Ask whether there is an issue that can be addressed. Resources that might be helpful for addressing complex topics such as death and friendship include materials developed by Fred Rogers, aka Mr. Rogers.
Depending on the relationship of a child to your family, you can go a little deeper, if necessary. Keeping a peer group intact for your school-age child is important but can be difficult in a death-denying culture. Moreover, children may be accidentally self-referential and may worry that if their friends’ parent died, theirs could, too. Reassurances that people are healthy and unlikely to die may reinforce the bonds of friendship at a critical point.
Middle and high school
Handling parental death in middle or high school presents additional challenges because there are more social dynamics at play. Wedges in friendships may form, and the sense of loss a bereaved child experiences can be compounded by these secondary losses. As a result, it is beneficial to help your child remain in contact with supportive peers. Encourage an open dialogue, and provide assistance in answering questions. Adolescents are mature to varying degrees and tend not to have much direct experience with death; therefore, helping to create neutral settings in which questions can be addressed (e.g., in the car on the way home from a sports or school event) might be helpful.
In general, children who have the opportunity to experience the full range of emotions associated with grief do benefit. They have experienced a life-changing event, but they can make sense of it. For their friends who might be unsure how to help, it is an opportunity to do so in an enduring way. Positive peer friendships, especially during times of loss, can have long-term benefit.
For Solo Moms, who already have a long list of challenges and expectations, the impulse can sometimes be to pull the drawbridge up over the moat and tend to your own garden; however, do consider that your child will benefit from positive friendships. These friendships grow out of communication, and your child may need assistance as he or she works to figure it all out.
Also consider the groups your child holds close—at any age—and ways in which to help your child answer questions from within those groups. Do the best you can to keep your finger on the pulse and rhythm of conversation, and take the time to answer questions that arise as a result.
Your child will thank you, and you are doing an important service: you are helping your child re-create and maintain a safe space of connection. What a gift.
If you have questions about how other bereaved Solo Moms cope with their new reality, Sister Chat is a confidential space to get advice from other moms who’ve been there.
Tara Shafer is the cofounder of Reconceiving Loss, an online resource center for families coping with pregnancy and infant loss. She is a contributing blogger to the Huffington Post, Psychology Today, and BabyCenter. Her work has appeared in the New York Times and on National Public Radio. You can follow her on Twitter at @reconceivinglos.
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