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Explaining Death to a Child

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A psychologist gives tips on how to have those tough conversations.

Our hearts break for John Travolta and Kelly Preston as they mourn the sudden death of their 16-year-old son Jett. What do you say to a parent who has lost a child? What do you say to 8-year-old girl whose brother's tragic death is being theorized and analyzed ad nauseum?

travolta family

Knowing how to comfort friends and loved ones in times of grief is difficult. We asked clinical psychologist Dr. Sheila Forman to share her thoughts on what the Travoltas may be experiencing. She also gives loved ones and friends tools to cope with such a major loss.

momlogic: What must the Travoltas be experiencing emotionally right now?
Dr. Sheila Forman: When a parent loses a child, that is the worst loss a parent could ever experience. And it's even worse when it's unexpected. The parents of the deceased child can be expected to go through a range of emotions -- from denial to rage to depression to grief to everything in between.

momlogic: What  should you say to a friend who has just lost a child?
Dr. Sheila Forman: We always want to offer our condolences and sympathies. We often feel that those words are empty and that it's not enough. But sharing those sentiments are really valuable to the family. If the death was an accident or unexpected, as in the case of Jett, don't pry or ask the family how it happened. If you are a friend of the family, the details in many ways are irrelevant. Be mindful of the family's privacy and grieving and don't intrude upon them. The other thing you can do is offer to help the family. Don't ask them what you can do to help -- just start initiating action. Bring food over. Offer to bring other children to and from school. There's a lot of things you can do to help family through crisis.

momlogic: How can parents comfort the sibling of a deceased child?
Dr. Sheila Forman: You do want to talk to the sibling but you always have to be age appropriate. What you say should be based on how sophisticated they are and how mature they are. You want to tell them the truth (about the death), but how you explain it depends on your spiritual and religious beliefs. For example, if you believe there is a heaven, you can explain that the lost child is now in heaven. If you have other beliefs, you explain death in terms of those beliefs. It's very common for the remaining sibling to experience fear and anxiety about death -- that they might die too. So as a parent you want to explain that they will live long and healthy lives. It's also really important that the remaining child feels important. You want to keep the memory of the lost child alive but you don't want to create a shrine or elevate the child too much -- it's not fair to the remaining child. I always strongly recommend grief counseling for everyone -- including the siblings.

momlogic: Should John and Kelly explain to Ella Blue exactly what happened to Jett?
Dr. Sheila Forman: Ella Blue is 8 years old. It would be appropriate to tell her that her brother had an illness which caused a seizure. If it turns out that he did fall and hit his head, they could share that information. But all explanations in general should be age appropriate and that depends on the child. Some can be told more and some can be told less. You should know your own kid. If it is an accident, you can explain to the sibling what happened but not in too much gruesome detail. It's too traumatic for the remaining child. An older child could probably tolerate more.

momlogic: What should you say to a child whose friend or classmate may have died?
Dr. Sheila Forman: Again, you should use age-appropriate language. The way you talk about it depends on the circumstance. For example, if the child was ill, you can talk about illness and sickness and the importance of maintaining health. If the child died of a tragic/sudden accident, then you can talk about accidents and the importance of safety. The child may have their own fears and anxieties about death in this case as well, so you want to reassure the child that they are safe and healthy and will live a long life. I also recommend bringing a grief counselor into the class as well. Children need to express their feelings as much as parents do.

momlogic: How can peripheral friends and fans of the Travoltas express their condolences during this time?
Dr. Sheila Forman: John Travolta is such a beloved person. It would be appropriate and comforting to him and his family to know how much they are loved and that the world is sharing in their grief. But beyond sending a card or an email, that's it. Respect their privacy and pain.

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