Talking to Your Child
About the Loss of a Loved One

Part 2: Communication Barriers

J.W. Worden, Ph.D.

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Many of us are inclined not to talk about things that upset us. We try to put a lid on our feelings and hope that saying nothing will be for the best. But not talking about something doesn’t mean we aren’t communicating. Children are great observers. They read messages on our faces and in the way we walk or hold our hands. We express ourselves by what we do, by what we say, and by what we do not say.

When we avoid talking about something that is obviously upsetting, children often hesitate to bring up the subject or ask questions about it. To a child, avoidance can be a message - “If Mummy and Daddy can’t talk about it, it really must be bad, so I better not talk about it either.” In effect, instead of protecting our children by avoiding talk, we sometimes cause them more worry and also keep them from telling us how they feel.

On the other hand, it also isn’t wise to confront children with information that they may not yet understand or want to know. As with any sensitive subject, we must seek a delicate balance that encourages children to communicate - a balance that lies somewhere between avoidance and confrontation, a balance that isn’t easy to achieve. It involves:

  • trying to be sensitive to their desire to communicate when they’re ready
  • trying not to put up barriers that may inhibit their attempts to communicate
  • offering them honest explanations when we are obviously upset
  • listening to and accepting their feelings
  • not putting off their questions by telling them they are too young
  • trying to find brief and simple answers that are appropriate to their questions; answers that they can understand and that do not overwhelm them with too many words.

Perhaps most difficult of all, it involves examining our own feelings and beliefs so that we can talk to them as naturally as possible when the opportunities arise.

Not Having All the Answers

When talking with children, many of us feel uncomfortable if we don’t have all the answers. Young children, in particular, seem to expect parents to be all knowing - even about death. But death, the one certainty in all life, if life’s greatest uncertainty. Coming to terms with death can be a lifelong process. We may find different answers at different stages of our lives, or we may always feel a sense of uncertainty and fear. If we have unresolved fears and questions, we may wonder how to provide comforting answers for our children.

While not all our answers may be comforting, we can share what we truly believe. Where we have doubts, an honest, “I just don’t know the answer to that one,” may be more comforting than an explanation which we don’t quite believe. Children usually sense our doubts. White lies, no matter how well intended, can create uneasiness and distrust. Besides, sooner, or later, our children will learn that we are not all knowing, and maybe we can make that discovery easier for them if we calmly and matter-of-factly tell them we don’t have all the answers. Our non-defensive and accepting attitude may help them feel better about not knowing everything also.

It may help to tell our children that different people believe different things and that not everyone believes as we do, e.g., some people believe in an afterlife; some do not. By indicating our acceptance and respect for others’ beliefs, we may make it easier for our children to choose beliefs different from our own but more comforting to them.

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 9 Oct 2013
    Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.

 

 

Courage does not always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, "I will try again tomorrow."
~ Mary Anne Radmacher