How to discuss death to a child
The day it happened
On August 6, 2020, our family received the news that a loved one passed. My cousin Marquita was only 32 yet she was found that morning unresponsive. A wave of shock and sorrow pulsated through our family from distant cousins, to aunts and uncles and we wept hard. As I stood in utter disbelief “gone too soon”, 3 year old Nyaeli came to my side with tears in her eyes. She didn’t understand why mommy was in so much pain. Why was mommy crying?
I told my child about death
I stood in the kitchen, mind racing “how do I express this to my baby girl? Do I make up a sad children’s story or just tell her the truth” I told the truth - from my heart. In that moment, I didn’t think about creating a fantasy story laced with sugar and sweet little character voices. I thought “how can I answer her so she knows it’s ok for mommy to cry right now and it isn’t her fault”. I expected Nyaeli to ask “why” after “why” but she listened intently and clung to me for the remainder of the day. "Crying is not weakness; it’s cleansing your spirit of pain and toxic feelings". I told her very directly that my cousin (Nyaeli's cousin’s mother) had passed away. “She died today baby and we will never again see her”.
My child's reaction
From then on, Nyaeli held my hand and followed me around the house like a mini shadow. We sat outside together in quiet, listening to birds and blowing leaves. It was the quiet that allowed childhood memories with Marquita to begin playing in my mind like an old record. As fresh tears fell from my eyes, Nyaeli lifted her head from my lap and mirrored my sad face. She wiped my tears and hugged me saying “I’m sorry mommy”
In and out of head space
With every trauma in our family, we usually respond taking the news head on, asking the important and not so important questions in an effort to gain full understanding. In this case, I never will understand why Marquita's life turned out the way it did. Thoughts kept filling my head in the silent moments and I could feel myself drifting from present to past and asking myself how this will effect Marquita's legacy. "How will her children grow up without their mother"? "Does the youngest know what happened"?
Plans were made for us to say with my parents and the following day. Jasmine, another member of our 5 all girl cousin group, jumped at the chance to accompany us on the 2-hour drive. What a relief! Talking through our memories and laughing off the pain with Jasmine helped make the drive bearable; at least we were together. I had cried all my tears and today felt like any other day. I was present. Nyaeli kicking the back of my seat as we played I Spy for the 2 hour journey while Leila slept in her car seat. Except it wasn't any other day; my cousin and childhood friend is gone too soon and I will never hear her big, bold laugh again.
Mourning during a pandemic
The day of the funeral, I took the responsible route and made COVID-19 precautions to watch virtually from home. Leila slept through the entire event while Nyaeli spent most of it with her daddy. I was hurting because I couldn't be present for my other cousins who attended the funeral. It just isn't fair Marquita is gone too soon. Nyaeli found me and asked why was I crying. We spoke more after the funeral as she asked why I wore purple. “Purple is Marquita’s favorite color. When people die, it is nice to wear their favorite color or black. That is why you are wearing a black dress and mommy is wearing a purple one” “Oh. Mommy, I want to wear a purple flower in my hair too” Nyaeli wants to be included. Especially when her aunt Kaira returned from the funeral wearing a black dress and beautiful purple flower halo above her head. Nyaeli felt she was a part of something big and beautiful that grown ups appreciated.
The takeaway matters most
Children want to be seen, heard, and given a chance to explore for themselves. Some may call it ‘learning the hard way’ but I see it as ‘learning their own way’. If we allow children the gift of our attention, they will become better people for it. Expect your mini to ask questions and not understand what grief is or why their parent is alone in sorrow. Talk with your mini (not to them) and let mini conduct the conversation. Hard information is best explained in pieces and when your mini is willing to listen. Sometimes, repeating your statement is all mini needs to hear and other times, mini wants another bit of information.
How I began to heal
Healing has begun for myself and the other 4 members in our cousin group. It comes in waves but when one of us struggles with Marquita's passing, we make a way to be present so that we get through this together. Talking to the dead helps. Having this group of women, we shared so much together; they help because they feel what I feel too. Thinking about how Marquita would react actually helps me laugh and feel close to her spirit. I still cry a lot at times but my children and my business keep me preoccupied. Death is difficult and it effects us all but it does not mean we cannot grow and move on with a part of them entwined in our hearts.
I pray this article helps parents who are struggling to have this talk with their children. If you are unsure how to discuss death to a child, read this article. My condolences to your family.
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