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Speaking Openly with Your Child About Death :: Building Empathy, Compassion, and Keeping Memories Alive

Speaking Openly with Your Child About Death - Building Empathy, Compassion, and Keeping Memories Alive | Columbia SC Moms BlogIn 2012 when my husband and I became parents for the first time we were faced with so many choices; cloth or disposable, which day care, pediatrician or family doctor, etc. With all these choices and more, there was one that we instantly agreed on; our son (and future children) would know of both our fathers and why they weren’t here.

Long before I met my husband, his father lost his battle with cancer. While I was in high school, my father was in a motorcycle accident which he did not survive. We were each very close with our fathers and are lucky enough to have buckets of memories and pictures from the time we got to spend with them.

Our journey of sharing the memories of our fathers with our children started with our oldest his first day home. As I laid our son in his crib for his first night at home, my husband started reading my favorite book that my dad would read to me, to our son. I sobbed. I ugly cried so hard. And since then, it became tradition. 

Every year when they’re released, my husband buys Little Debbie’s Pumpkin Delights to share with our sons, just has his father did with him and his brother. It’s little things like these that we included in day to day life to keep their memory alive, and demonstrate to our children that while they are no longer here, they are and can still be a part of our lives.  

We both talk about our fathers regularly, our oldest knows they are no longer here. He understands that it is sad and sometimes hard for me and his father. While he is still working on his empathetic delivery of questions and statements, he understands empathy, compassion and how important they were to us because we do the following.

Speak the Truth

We don’t use misleading words like ‘loss’ or ‘in a better place’ to describe someone’s death. We use the word loss when they misplace a toy or item, not to describe a death. It can be hard to avoid this word, because it is commonly used in social settings, like ‘sorry for your loss’. We’ve explained this is how to talk to someone who had a relationship with the diseased, but we never use it to describe a death to our child.

We avoid ‘in a better place’ at all costs. We didn’t even use it when the fish died. This is commonly used when someone passes after a battle with a disease and as our children get older, we can explain that, but prefer to use phrases along the lines of ‘they’re no longer suffering’ or ‘they’re now without pain’. These phrases accomplish the same thing as ‘in a better place’ but translate to children much better.

Talk Openly

We are always talking about both our fathers. Our oldest asks questions about them and our feelings regularly. He asks if it makes us sad. He asks if we are OK when we talk about them.

One prime example was about a year ago, I was cleaning, and I came across an unlabeled VHS. I popped it in the VCR (yes we still have one) and sat back while an old home movie started. My son entered the room and asked what I was watching. I explained it was a video from when I was little of Christmas morning, and the voice you could hear was my dad’s. He hugged me right away and asked if I was OK. He sat down next to me and we watched the whole video and talked about my dad. It was a great moment to share.

Speaking Openly with Your Child About Death - Building Empathy, Compassion, and Keeping Memories Alive | Columbia SC Moms Blog

My original post to my Instagram account when we found the video.

Demonstrate Empathy and Compassion

At every chance we do our best to demonstrate empathy and compassion to our children. When either my husband or I talk about our fathers, the other demonstrates they’re listening. Likewise, when our oldest wants to talk about one of them, or has a question about another person, we listen. We change our mood and demeanor to calm and respectful when we talk about death. Changing our demeanor shows them that this conversation is different than the how was your day at school conversation.  

Children understand and process a lot more than we as parents tend to give them credit for. Don’t underestimate your child to ‘protect’ them.  

How do you speak to your child about death?

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