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Dear Dr. Brady,
Lately my 7 year old has been talking a lot about death: how it can happen, what comes next, and generally mentioning death a lot. He hasn’t lost anyone, though we do have a family member with a terminal diagnosis. We haven’t shared this with our son and we are not sure whether and how to do so, especially since he is already talking so much about death. Any suggestions on what we can do to help him? Is this normal?
Dear Grimacing Dad,
I am convinced one of the reasons to have pets is to allow for nature to help parents teach their children about death and dying. There is something profound about loving a pet, be it a goldfish for a few years or a dog for a decade, that helps children understand the impermanence of life and the nature of death. Even young children can grasp lessons about death and dying from losing a loved pet that is sometimes out of their reach without such loss. I don’t know if your family has a pet, or has had pets, but it sounds like, ready or not, you’re facing some tough conversations.
It’s entirely normal for kids to talk about death, violence, and other subjects we wish they might save for after the guests leave. If your son is saying things like “I want to die,” or “I think about dying all the time,” it’s best for you to bring him to see a mental health professional because, while very rare, children can and do become suicidal and homicidal. These thoughts and feelings are not a phase, but rather a signal of some underlying condition that can be treated but must be taken seriously first.
It doesn’t sound like your son is suicidal, but that he seems to be bringing up the subject of death and inserting death into his play a bit more than is typical. There is a big chance that this is about the family news that hasn’t been shared yet. Children absorb far more than we give them credit for, and the connection we share with our children makes them especially skilled at understanding our emotional states and thoughts, even without direct conversation.
One psychologist at Vassar College conducted a study with preteens and found that when non-related preteens tried to identify emotions behind an adult’s expression they failed to get better than 50/50 accuracy. When that parent’s own child had to guess the emotion the face was displaying they got them 100 percent correct. Children’s early job is reading the emotional state their parent is in and trying to understand where it came from. So maybe no one sat down and shared the news of the terminal diagnosis, but feelings are worn on faces and children remember the meaning of those facial expressions more than you might think.
Aside from your own family’s crisis, there is an awful lot of news focused on death, from heroin overdoses to ISIS kidnappings to characters in video games and TV.
Again, children’s ability to absorb this information far exceeds what parents are aware of. A 7 year old is beginning to have thinking that allows for thinking about himself and others in way he couldn’t a year ago. The older he gets the more true this is. Death is an abstract concept, in our historical time and culture most of us are pretty removed from the dying process, which happens in a medically managed environment or away from our daily life. But as death becomes less abstract, because it happened to someone you loved or because you have encountered it first hand, there is a need to make meaning of death. What happened, and what happens now. For many families faith is one way they help make meaning of death as a biological and spiritual experience. Whether your family has a faith tradition to draw from or not, it will be helpful for you to reflect on what death means to you, so that the lessons you want your son to get about death and dying reflect the values and ideals you and your family hold.
Understand that 7 is old enough to have complex and deep thoughts, but sometimes not old enough to sit calmly, reflectively, and patiently listen to philosophical or theological discussions. It’s worthwhile to speak with your son about death, about what he thinks about it, what questions he might have about death or dying. And it’s worth remembering that while he can ask big questions sometimes the big answers are harder for him to hear. There are fortunately a lot of great age appropriate and culturally varied books for kids about death. Some resources you might find helpful:
- Dawn Huebner PhD Local NH psychologist, TEDx speaker, and author of a set of children’s self-help guides.
- A list of titles on Google for a variety of ages on death and dying.
- WEB MD guide to talking about death with children who might witness a terminally-ill loved one navigate the dying process.
Alright, it’s your turn. I hope you’ll join me in seeking clarity for the shifts you are navigating.
Readers of Manchester Ink Link seek relevant, local, and pragmatic reporting. Carol Robidoux provides layered reports that allow all of us to feel not only part of the story, but partners in resolution. My hope is that this column will serve as a compass for readers seeking clarity in the chaos of their businesses, personal lives, or relationships. From time to time we will have guest columnists offer their insight on a challenge. This information is simply opinion, but I hope you will share your stories so that others can gain clarity for themselves.
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Loretta L.C. Brady owns BDS Insight a culture, crisis, and conflict management firm in Manchester. She is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Saint Anselm College. She, her husband Brian Brady, and their 5 children live and work in Manchester.
The opinions or views expressed in this column are not intended to treat or diagnose; nor are they meant to replace the treatment and care that you may be receiving from a licensed professional, physician or mental health professional. This column, its author, the newspaper and publisher are not responsible for the outcome or results of following any advice in any given situation. You, and only you, are completely responsible for your actions. Dr. Loretta L.C. Brady, clinical and organizational psychologist, offers her and guest columnist opinions on a variety of current event and reader submitted subjects. She and they are expressing personal and professional opinions and views. Manchester Ink Link and Dr. Loretta L.C. Brady are not responsible for the outcome or results of following the advice of this column in any given situation.
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