2020 was truly the year of living dangerously.
In the United States, when the final numbers are in, more than 3,000,000 will have died.
Although Covid-19 claimed more than 300,000 of those lives in this country, it was not the only culprit. Deaths were up in many categories, including coronary heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Whether or not these conditions were related to Covid is not the point — the point is the Grim Reaper was omnipresent in our lives in 2020.
“Excess Deaths” is a term used to describe mortality that is higher than expected under normal conditions. The CDC reported that excess deaths in the US have occurred every week since March of this year. That is omnipresent.
As difficult as it is for adults to cope with death, psychologists say that it can be more overwhelming for children.
Dr. Karen Kotloff, Head of the Division of Infectious Disease and Tropical Pediatrics at the University of Maryland, put it well when she said: “Children are like sponges and they are going to absorb the anxiety of their parents.”
So how do parents talk effectively to their children about Covid, death and grief?
To quote Walt Disney — who was not a psychologist or epidemiologist, but knew a great deal about children — “You are not doing a child a favor by trying to shield them from reality.”
Psychologists agree with Disney; parents cannot shield their children from the reality of death. It’s important to be straightforward, very concrete. Any evasions or euphemisms only foster misunderstandings and confusion.
Perhaps the best reference guide is our own personal experiences with death. There are lessons to be learned from our childhood: remembering that first painful passing, be it a relative or a pet, can offer helpful guidelines. Did our parents foster an understanding of the event? How was the information conveyed? What was the most beneficial step taken to help us integrate the meaning of death?
Those who grew up in an environment where loss of life, divorce, and other unpleasantries were not open for much discourse, suffer from a distinct disadvantage. But this, too, is a lesson — defense mechanisms like avoidance and denial do not work in the face of the finality of death.
Dr. Benjamin Spock, who was the source authority on all matters relating to children during the post-war era, is viewed by some as passé these days. He did, however, espouse two principles which are applicable now — parents should trust their instincts (“you know more than you think you do,” he said) and children need unconditional love. Sage advice.
Social scientists have been studying the impact of death on children since the 1930’s; the findings provide efficacious guidelines to parents.
The principle of honesty is central — speaking in very concrete terms is most appropriate. Children may not understand the transient nature of our lives until they are between the ages of 5 and 9, so a direct, simple response to any question will do. Elaboration or the assumption of other questions is not necessary; let the child direct their own inquires. Pass along the information in bits and pieces over time, as the child requires. Do so with Dr. Spock in mind: trust your instincts, love unconditionally.
For example, make sure to use the words “death” or “died.” If a pet is euthanized, the term “put to sleep” can be deleterious — children go to sleep every night, does that mean they don’t get up again in the morning?
Generally speaking, there are three ideas that require explanation, which must be put in the language a child can comprehend: the universality of death (we are all born and at some time, we all die), the irreversibility of death, and the reason for this (bodies cease to function as we age, or, in the case of accidental death, bodies cannot function when seriously injured.)
The subject of funeral attendance is strictly a family’s preference — some experts believe children should be part of the decision-making process. If children do attend, be sure they receive a thorough description of what will happen.
Developmental psychologist Rosemarie Truglio made what many consider to be the most important point about conversations with children about death — parents need to “keep the hope alive.” Dr. Truglio said it is key to impress that “life is going to go on. We’re going to be OK. It’s a tough time right now, but we have things to look forward to.”
Finally, a line from Robert Anderson’s play, I Never Sang for My Father, may provide comfort. The actor, Gene Hackman, delivered it perfectly on stage: “Death is the end of a life, it is not the end of a relationship.” Children understand that the memories of a deceased loved one can be carried in the heart forever.