Q My 8-year-old son has been dealing with the death of his best friend for the past year. Recently, he has become very close to my wife's brother. That uncle died yesterday, and we do not know how to tell my son. My wife and I are very concerned that this could have a lasting effect on him. Any professional insight would be greatly appreciated.
When telling your son you want to be brief, honest, and explain things in concrete terms that he will understand. You should also explain how his uncle’s death was different from his friend’s, because you don’t want him to develop superstitious beliefs that we could all die at any moment. Giving basic information — for example if he had cancer you can say that he had a disease called cancer, and it was a specific type of cancer that couldn’t be treated, which is different from how his friend died. You can explain that most people die when they get old, and although these two people died when they weren’t old, that usually doesn’t happen.
Let him ask questions if he has any, and again try to answer briefly and honestly, and in concrete terms. Don’t try too hard to anticipate his questions, because kids often have different questions than the ones adults might have. Let him know that he can ask you questions whenever he has them. Kids take a while to process information, so he might have more questions later, and you should keep the lines of communication open.
Sometimes after a death like this, kids will be afraid that their parents might die, too. Be prepared for him to ask if you are okay, and provide reassurance that you and his mom are healthy and there’s no reason for you to die any time soon.
Normalize any feelings that he’s having. It’s okay if he’s feeling sad, and it’s okay if he’s angry, too—it can feel unfair when someone we love is taken from us. But reassure him that these emotions won’t last forever. He’ll feel happy again, and so will you and his mom. You can say something like, “I’m really sad, too, but I know I’m going to feel okay again.”
Try to be pretty neutral when you talk to him, and don’t share too much of your own distress with him. If you are tentative and worried when you are talking to him, he’ll pick up on those cues and think, “This is awful.” You don’t want to inadvertently lead him to be devastated; you want him to experience whatever he experiences naturally. And young kids are pretty egocentric, so if they can see that their parents are okay then they’ll often be pretty okay, too.
Speaking of your reactions, it’s understandable if your wife is having a hard time right now because her brother just died. She might want to wait to have conversations with your son about it until she can check some of her sadness, because you’ll want to focus on his feelings, not on the grownups’ feelings. Kids can feel unsafe when they know their parents are dealing with overwhelming emotions, and you want to try to protect him from that.
Looking into the future, it will be a good idea to have him involved in some kind of a memorial for his uncle, so that he has a chance to say goodbye. If he goes to the funeral, it’s a good idea to bring someone like a trusted babysitter along so that he can go take a break and go outside if he wants to.
Finally, know that routine is really helpful when kids are feeling disoriented. Sometimes as parents we think we’re helping kids by being a bit lax when something bad happens, but it can actually be unsettling to kids. Try to maintain expectations and keep everything as normal as you can.