How do you tell a child Daddy's never coming home?
With the sudden passing of actor Heath Ledger, Moms everywhere can empathize with Michelle Williams, mother of his now fatherless 2-year-old daughter, Matilda. What kind of conversations is she going to have to have through the years? Matilda is too young to understand now, but soon she'll wonder—maybe even hear kids at school or relatives talking—and her mother is going to have to give her something.
According to Children's Grief Education Association, approximately 4.8 million U.S. children are grieving the loss of a parent. Mom•Logic friend and family counselor Rosanne Tobey LPC says the best way to inform a child of a sudden loss is to keep it simple and allow the child to express themselves and to ask questions.• Don't provide too many details, unless asked. Talk to the child based on the developmental level they're at. With small kids, keep it simple, but be honest—don't tell them they "went to sleep" or "were sick" because children will take it literally and have a fear of being sick or sleeping.
• Let your child know what to expect. Prepare them, let them know the process—there's going to be a ceremony where you'll have a chance to say goodbye—whatever the process is for your family, tell them ahead of time. If your child wants to attend, it could be best to let them. They may find some comfort in participating in the ritual. It's important to have a back-up plan in case they get overwhelmed and need to leave. Choose someone in advance to take the child outside or home.
• For school age kids, give your child a choice. The first days after a death often include planning and chaos. If the child wants to go to school, they should go. It's important to try to be in tune with the child's needs and make the decision based on who you know your child to be. Some children would rather stay close to home and that's OK too.
• Reassure your child. Kids are smart, they'll start to wonder what will happen to them. By explaining to them what will happen—whether it's Mommy will work less or Grandma will take care of you after school—what's most important for kids is taking away as much of the unexpected as possible. They'll adjust much better that way.
Jill, a mother of two small girls, still remembers the day her family was forever changed. "I walked home from school, holding hands with my little brother. My uncle's Bronco was parked outside and I was excited to see him. When we walked into the house, the adults were just standing there, my mother's head was in her hands. When they said 'daddy died this afternoon,' it was just like 'What?'—so out of the blue. He'd had a heart attack and all my brother and I could do was continue standing there holding hands. Who knew when you walked in the door your life would completely change."
How did life change for Jill and her family? "My mom really fell apart. I would find her crying in a corner of the house. I had to be the strong one. I would comfort her, telling her it's going to be OK. My dad was a veterinarian in the area, so everyone in the community knew him and he was extremely well-liked. When he passed away, they made an announcement at school, and I was one of the only kids who'd ever had a parent die. People were constantly approaching me—it was very, very public."
Dealing with the loss of her father continues every day at home with Jill's own husband and children. "I worry about my husband healthwise, his eating and exercise. I've found myself thinking 'oh yeah I'll be a single mom one day.' It was a strong presence when my first daughter was born. I caught myself wondering what I would do if he was just gone. Also, it's weird to watch my daughter getting closer to that age I was when my father died. I had to grow up so fast. At 11, boom—I was an adult."
Obviously, the death of a father or close family member doesn't stop affecting a child when the funeral is over. Rosanne Tobey says some other things to be aware of is that the child might not cry at first. "He or she is going to take some time to process it—even if they comprehend, they may continuously ask question. Expect some sort of acting out, it's normal. But keep an eye out - if the child starts acting out in a way that's troublesome or an older child's grades suddenly drop, consult with a school counselor. They're a free and immediate resource and can help you find more help. There are also great books and local support groups. Also, don't underestimate the power of expression—encourage the child draw pictures of the person whose passed. Sometimes they just need to express their feelings."