It’s a conversation no parent wants to have with their child. We know at some point, our children will learn about dying through the death of a grandparent or relative, but when your child’s friend dies, how can you help him cope?
In 2005, the children of Bolingbrook lost one of their own. Jack Noble, a vibrant, happy 3-year-old lost his battle with Alveolar Rhabdomyosarcoma, a very rare childhood cancer. Before becoming sick, Jack was well-known to many children through play groups, library programs and swimming lessons.
It was at those swimming lessons where my daughter, Tessa, 4, met Jack and his older sister Katie, now 6. Everyone had such high hopes for his recovery and when Jack died, we were stunned. We knew we had to tell Tessa, but at first had no words to explain it.
Sally Noble, Jack’s mother and one of the bravest women I have ever met, did not hide when her son died. She became a warrior, opening her heart and life to everyone who had met Jack. She encouraged parents to talk to their children about Jack’s life and death. She opened up the visitation for Jack to any child who wanted to say goodbye, including crafts at the church to keep them involved.
"We wanted parents and children to continue to talk about Jack," Noble says. "It keeps his spirit alive."
So how do you talk about the death of a friend with your child? There are ways to make the conversation easier, for you and your child.
1 Just do it. Don’t hold off on telling your child that her friend has died. We told Tessa within a couple of hours of learning about Jack. I knew that the longer I waited, the harder it would be, for her and for me.
Be honest. Let your child see your emotions. According to Dr. Leoneen Woodard-Faust, clinical associate in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Chicago, "A parent should tell a child if a friend dies the same way that the parent would convey any sad news to the child, with love and compassion."
Attend services. Sally, and her husband Dan, encouraged parents to bring Jack’s friends to his services. Not only where the kids allowed to view their friend’s body, but they made crafts involving pictures of Jack that they could take home with them.
Keep it in perspective. Does your child want to attend services? Don’t push him to go if he’s scared, especially if he is a young child. An older child, who understands the permanence of death, may be eager to attend to say goodbye to his friend.
"Visitation may be especially difficult, and the child should not be pushed to view the body, but they can sign the guest book and pay their respects to the family. If the child is too upset or uncomfortable to stay for the service, the parents should respect this and take the child out," Woodard-Faust says.
You know your child best, so use your judgment.
Continue to talk. Children under age 7 may not understand their friend is truly gone. If she asks about her friend, remind her that her friend died. Don’t pretend that her friend is unavailable or ignore her questions. Death is confusing enough for young children. Honesty and openness are the best tactics. Every so often Tessa will ask about Jack and if she will see him at swimming lessons again. I have to remind her that he has died, a fact she accepts once repeated.
For older children, let them know that they can, and should, talk about their friend. Tell them it is OK to talk about the good times, as well as the bad. Expressing their feelings will lead to closure and acceptance.
Answer the questions. I spend more time answering questions about death now. Tessa wants to know if she will die someday, to which I honestly answer yes. I tell her I hope she’s a very old lady when she dies. I explain that kids die sometimes, but that everyone hopes for a long, healthy life and there are no guarantees. Sometimes she cries, sometimes she needs a hug, but overall she’s coping, learning and, I hope, becoming a stronger, more secure child.
But if you don’t know the answers, don’t pretend you do.
"The parent should offer support and comfort," Woodard-Faust says, "and not feel obliged to try to answer questions that are unanswerable. I call them God Questions, such as, ‘Why did God take him? She was always so nice; how could this happen to her? Why didn’t the doctors save him?’ "
Use analogy. When talking about her son with other children, including her daughter, Sally Noble used the analogy of the hermit crab. When a hermit crab is in its shell, it is warm, but when the crab moves on, the shell become cold. She wanted the other children to know that while Jack’s body was cold, his spirit still lived.
Watch for the danger signs. Sometimes the death of a friend is overwhelming. Children over age 12 may have an especially difficult time dealing with the death of a peer. At this age, children are friends because they truly like each other. This loss could be devastating. Look for the warning signs and seek professional help.
"Parents should watch for prolonged sleep problems, school related difficulties, behavioral or academic, continued tearfulness, worry about the child’s own safety or the safety of others or extreme anger," Woodard-Faust says.
Be patient. Some children, especially the younger children, may be concerned about their own safety after the death of a friend. If illness was the cause, they may worry about their own health or become clingy. Behaviors may even regress, Woodard-Faust says. Adhering to your regular schedule will ease your child back into regular life. If their friend’s death was the result or an accident or violence, reassure your child that you do everything in your power to keep them safe.
Create a legacy. While a friend may have died, it doesn’t mean that he ceases to live on in our hearts. Talk about his life; remember why your child was friends with him. Gone, but not forgotten, just like the old adage.
Or follow the wise words of Jack’s mother, Sally, "I keep thinking, you don’t have a legacy at 3. You don’t leave a masterpiece behind. But if all of Jack’s friends can remember him, then that’s his legacy."
Michelle Sussman is a wife, mother of two and a freelance writer. All proceeds for this article have been donated to the Jack Noble Memorial Fund benefiting the Fountaindale Public Library in Bolingbrook. You can contact Michelle at firstname.lastname@example.org.