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What Will Her Mommy Say?

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How do you tell a child Daddy's never coming home?

michelle_matilda2.jpg

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."


next: Ellen Degeneres' Tribute To Heath Ledger
21 comments so far | Post a comment now
cd January 23, 2008, 2:53 PM

So so sad.

aimee January 23, 2008, 2:57 PM

My husband committed suicide when my son was 8. I didn’t want to give him details and my sister and I decided WE were going to tell him what happened but my inlaws got to him first.

Counseling and letting him ask what questions he wanted really helped him. Also, he goes to a special bereavement camp every year with other kids that have lost a parent or loved one and that makes him feel like he’s not the only kid that has gone through this and it also helps the other kids at the camp. I would HIGHLY recommend that or just a support group or play group for kids that experienced the same thing. If there isn’t one..start one…you’ll be surprised as to how many other parents may find that helpful to their kids also.

Kasey January 23, 2008, 3:16 PM

This is such a sad situation :(
Look at that darling little girl. She looks JUST like Heath.

Jennifer January 23, 2008, 3:41 PM

I just wanted to send my heartfelt condolences to this young woman and her beautiful daughter…Such a sad, sad situation for both of them. I am also the mother of children who lost their father this past April, in a horrible car accident, he was 35. We miss him tremendously….My daughters are 15 and almost 17…So it was a little easier to talk to them about things…What makes it extraordinarily difficult; is that no unlike Michelle Williams, I am also the “X”…..You only get to grieve in incriments and even THOSE times, you feel bad…Because you were no longer together….However, when you share a child(ren) the grieving process is prolonged and agonizing….All the memories….My children are spitting images of their father, as is little Matilida…It’s very difficult to look at their faces every day and not be reminded….The days get better…That’s all I can say….My heart and my thoughts are with both his family, his child and Michelle….Rest in Peace Heath….

Sarah Johnson January 23, 2008, 4:20 PM

I don’t want to read some freaking poems, or here how to tell baby blah blah blah how to do deal with blah blah blah. I wanna know:
Did he commit suicide because of the split?
And I wanna know if Michelle feels that way as well, and if she’s feeling guilty…ect…her actual comments. C’mon people, if we’re going to dig for the gritty story, then DIG already.

Sarah Johnson January 23, 2008, 4:20 PM

I don’t want to read some freaking poems, or here how to tell baby blah blah blah how to do deal with blah blah blah. I wanna know:
Did he commit suicide because of the split?
And I wanna know if Michelle feels that way as well, and if she’s feeling guilty…ect…her actual comments. C’mon people, if we’re going to dig for the gritty story, then DIG already.

diana January 23, 2008, 4:21 PM

My heartfelt sympathy to the Ledger and Williams families and to Heath’s friends. In March, our family lost my 38-year-old brother under eerily similar circumstances (minus the “public eye”). I dealt with explaining his death to my own children who were playing with him in the backyard the day before. He also had young children of his own (the youngest was 3). So,weeks after his death, my mother, sister and I decided to ask his close friends and family to write down and/or send us special memories, stories, etc. they had of him. Many of those revolved around his children. We are still putting them in a big scrapbook for his children so they can look at it whenever they want/need a reminder of their Dad. We want them to have something concrete that will explain what kind of person he was - something that will endure. I put a scrapbook like this together when my father died, too - complete with photos. My Mom has it, I often look at it, and so do my kids. Keep him close in your heart and God bless. Your lives are forever changed. There will be many tough days ahead, but he is with you and will help you through your difficult hours.

Tracey January 23, 2008, 4:25 PM

Just wanted to say that I am in shock over the sudden passing of Heath, he was a beautiful person inside and out and I am sure we are all going to miss him, but those closest to him are the ones now who needs us the most. Pray for comfort for Michelle and Matilda, Pray that God put’s his loving arms around them for the rest of their lives.

deanna January 23, 2008, 4:48 PM

love the memories you have and cherish them as well as that little girl. he was a wonderful actor who will be missed by all.

Jane January 23, 2008, 4:59 PM

I had the privelage of meeting Heath about a year ago. He was at a bar in the Chicagoland area (filming Batman, i’m assuming), and (obviously) I noticed it was him right away, but he looked either sad or drained, so I didn’t want to bother him.
There wasn’t many people in the bar, the others that were there didn’t seem to recognize him (but I can tell he saw that I recognized him), and after about an hour he sent me and my friend a round of drinks saying “Thanks for not saying anything” (telling the crowd who he was). He was such a sweet guy… I hope and pray that Michelle and their beautiful daughter can be strong and get through this.

Melissa January 23, 2008, 5:09 PM

I lost my mother when I was the same age as Matilda, and many people think that children don’t really know what’s going on, and to an extent they don’t, but they will wonder where mommy or daddy is, my aunt told me some stories from when she stayed with us after my mom died, like how i would say “mommy” and then scream when i saw it was her, and not let her touch anything that was my mom’s. I feel for Matilda as I know how hard it is growing up without a parent, and I feel for Michelle after seeing what my dad went through. My heart goes out to the entire family!

MAY January 23, 2008, 5:56 PM

I wish it was my sister’s ex husband instead of Heath Ledger.

David January 23, 2008, 6:05 PM

Michelle, family and friends of Heath,

What a terrible tragedy - I’m so sorry for you and will keep you in my thoughts. Much love.

Adrianne  January 23, 2008, 6:36 PM

All we can do for them is pray, pray, pray.

Kathryn January 23, 2008, 7:02 PM

It is always sad when any human being dies, but especially when someone is as young as Heath. My husband suddenly died March of last year, and it is soo difficult to handle….and I know what Michelle is going to go thru….it is so hard, and also people who you think will be there for you…suddenly just do not know what to say or even worse…just disappear after a couple of months!!!! Be strong Michelle my heart and prayers go out to you and little Matilda….

Not Sarah Johnson January 23, 2008, 7:25 PM

Your compassion Ms Johnson, is overwhelming. What do you care what the ‘gritty story’ is? It’s none of your business really, now is it? How shallow some human beings can be…

Sarah L January 23, 2008, 10:31 PM

Sarah Johnson:

This is not a page for people to dig up DIRT on a woman who’s ex fiance just died - 24 hours ago. NO ONE will EVER know, if he did indeed commit suicide, the reasons behind it, as there were no notes left behind. If you want dirt… wait on Britney, and while you’re at it… STFU

Sarah L January 23, 2008, 10:32 PM

Sarah Johnson:

This is not a page for people to dig up DIRT on a woman who’s ex fiance just died - 24 hours ago. NO ONE will EVER know, if he did indeed commit suicide, the reasons behind it, as there were no notes left behind. If you want dirt… wait on Britney, and while you’re at it… STFU

mck January 24, 2008, 2:59 PM

Heath lives on in Matilda just like he said. She is a beautiful little girl his mirror’s image. Maybe looking into her eyes as the years go by will ease Michelle and his family’s pain. What a loss!

Dawn  January 27, 2008, 2:18 PM

My prayers and thoughts go out to his family and friends.

I am currently walking down the grief path after the devastating loss of my 19 year old son to suicide. I believe that facing the grief process head on is the only way.

As for Matilda, children mimic the reactions of the adults around them. I hope Michelle consults a qualified grief counselor that specializes in children.

I had to tell my 4 1/2 year old son that his big brother was an angel. He wanted to call my son in Heaven. Breaks my heart.


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