Mar 15, 2011
Breaking Bad News to Children

The whole drive home from the hospital, Penina could not stop thinking about how she would tell her children that her mother, their beloved Bubby, had passed away.

Rifka Schonfeld - N'shei Chabad Newsletter

Penina walked through the door to her house and immediately felt the tears well up in her eyes. The whole drive home from the hospital, she could not stop thinking about how she would tell her children that her mother, their beloved Bubby, had passed away. “Oy vey,” she thought, “I better just tell them now. What’s the point in delaying this painful moment?”

A few minutes later, sitting with her children, ages three, five,seven and ten, Penina started to relate the events of the day. At first she was controlled.

“Kids, I have something I need to tell you. Remember how I mentioned that Bubby was not feeling well? Early this morning Bubby passed away. That means she is with the Ribono Shel Olom now.”

With those words, Penina burst into uncontrollable sobs. “I’m sorry. I can’t talk right now, I have to be alone,” she said, leaving her stunned children in middle of the living room.

Across the street, another family had experienced a similarly devastating loss of their adored Zeide; however, the scene that played out in their house was quite different. The mother, Devora, was shaken by the death of her father and knew that she needed to take some time to process the loss before she could possibly begin to discuss it with her young children. Conse-quently, when Devora arrived home from her parents’ home, where her fa-ther had died, she asked her husband to look after the children for a few hours.

Meanwhile, Devora met with her brothers and sisters to discuss the plans for the levayah and shivah, and more importantly, to share their emotions after losing their father.

Returning home later that evening, Penina felt drained but slightly more settled. She decided to speak to each of her children individually before they finished their nighttime routines, to give them the opportunity to ask questions and process the information before the levayah the next day.

She also wanted to assure each one of them that she was sad, yes, but she was okay, and that sadness is normal. She promised not to leave home again as she had done earlier, because she knew that was scary for them. Both Devora’s and Penina’s children had different responses to their grandparent’s passing, some asking questions and others crying incon-solably.

Devora and Penina got together to talk and realized that when they cried in front of their children, they scared them. They decided to try to help each other so that they could air their grief during the day when the children were out, and not frighten them with their tears later in the day. They made sure that their children felt safe coming to them with their thoughts and questions.

Breaking the News

As evidenced from Penina and Devora’s situations, there is never a painless way to tell your children that a beloved person has passed away. Rather, there are approaches that are helpful and some that are harmful. In the above cases, Penina seemed eager to get the job over with, but did not calculate how telling her children would affect her or them.

On the other hand, Devora gave herself a few hours to compose herself and then approached each child individually, in order to try to meet their needs patiently and lovingly.

Dr. Norman N. Blumenthal, the Director of Bereavement and Crisis Intervention Services at Chai Lifeline, offers the following suggestions when dealing with loss:

•Though prompt notification is ideal, make sure you have digested and incorporated the news yourself. Children, in scary situations, scan the adults’ facial expressions, tone, and other forms of non-verbal communication for assurances of safety. A distraught adult can say all the right things and yet undo itall by appearing markedly distressed.

Additionally, though Penina wanted to tell her children as soon as possible, she wasn’t necessarily ready to hear and accept her children’s feelings, which left them alone with their grief.

•Be truthful even if it is painful. In such tenuous situations, children sense gaps in the story or can begin to mistrust their parents if they find out later that information has been concealed or distorted. As never before, children have access to abundant information and feel entitled to know things which, in the past, they would have accepted as outside the boundaries of what they should know.

Let your children know that the loved one will not be coming back until Moshiach comes – lying to them about this crucial piece of information could lead to misunderstanding and doubt.

•Being truthful doesn’t mean that you have to over-inform or treat children as little adults. Read your child’s responses and stop when you sense that they have as much information as they need or can tolerate. At that point, let your child know that you are always available for more questions or assurances. For instance, when dealing with terrorist attacks, children might want to know the over-all picture, but hearing or reading too many details and seeing graphic pictures might produce trauma, even if the attack took place in another country.

•Children may have a delayed reaction to the news or appear more upset hours or even days later. It sometimes takes time to digest or comprehend the magnitude of what happened and there can be cycles of response.

Just because they seem okay initially, even uninterested, don’t assume that they will not need to talk to you later once they have processed the news.

Devora’s and Penina’s children may continue to ask questions and need guidance for months following their grandparents’ deaths. Following 911 and the Mumbai Massacre, children needed their parents to be available for talking for months and even years afterward.

•If the news has direct bearing on the family, the child may be more comfortable talking to a teacher, neighbor or someone more removed and whom they don’t have to worry about upsetting further. This is not to detract from the parent and his or her effectiveness. Feeling insulted that your child chooses to speak to someone else is counterproductive. In fact, the child might simply feel that he is protecting you and himself when he speaks to a trusted person outside of the family. This should be especially taken into account when dealing with the death of a child’s parent, chas v’sholom.

Perhaps the child needs support from outside the immediate grieving family. The surviving parent already has a lot to deal with and the child senses this.

•In untoward or trying circumstances, there is no harm in a child seeing contained crying and distress. Nevertheless, it should be clarified to the child that this crying is not like that of a baby or young child and actually helps the adults feel better. Your child can know that you feel pain – this will give them license to feel pain as well. Explaining that something is hard for you will help your child understand that it is okay for him or her to feel that way as well

•Give the child outlets and means for managing the distressing news. This can include talking, crying, coloring, davening and doing mitzvos in the zchus of the deceased. Just as Devora did, support your children through this process of grief through understanding that each will react in their own unique way.

•Remember that children are not china dolls. They have enormous resilience and capacity to let the adults in their lives know what they need. Obsessive worry about a child can become a self fulfilling prophecy and breed the very outcome you dread.

How Not to Break the Bad News

1. Sometimes parents can’t deal with telling the child “just yet.” It makes sense to take some time to process, as explained previously –but if you push it off too long you risk the child hearing from someone else, on the street, over the phone, or from a public news source. This compounds the pain and shock for the child. Your child needs to hear it from you in gentle words in a safe and loving environment. If you push it off long enough, you won’t have to do the difficult job –but you will have failed your child by allowing him or her to get the news from someone other than you.

2. Sometimes parents find it terribly painful to say to their child that someone they know has passed away in a car accident (for example). So they beat around the bush. First they say, “I think maybe So-and-So is not feeling well,” and slowly work their way up to death.

This can be excruciating for the child, who senses very clearly that something terrible is afoot. It can be like pulling off a bandaid slowly. Put your arms around your child and just say it.

3. Informing in person is preferable, but if you have no choice but to inform your loved one of painful news over the phone, FIRST make sure that she or he is not driving a car. Crashes have happened from drivers being informed of shocking news while behind the wheel of a car. Rule #1 notwithstanding, if you know your loved one is about to go on stage and perform, give a class or give a program which requires him or her to be “on,” hold off until the program is over. But the second it is, get in there, before she or he hears it from someone else.

4. Be crystal clear about who, what, where, and when. One of the cruelest (true) stories I’ve heard is about the teenage bochur who was called out of his yeshiva in Eretz Yisroel and informed that his sister was very sick and he had to fly home to New York immediately.

First, he immediately understood that he would not be flown home for a sickness, that she must have died, but nobody would say that to him. When he began crying and the teacher who was talking to him cried too, this was confirmed in his mind, but left unstated. First mistake. The boy was left to wonder how his sister had died. Mistake number two. Then the teacher drove him to the airport and he was put on a plane to New York by himself, for the 11-hour flight. He was all alone for many hours. He nearly went out of his mind. Mistake number three –someone should have flown with him. And last – the young man had several sisters. Nobody told him which sister was “sick” – really, had passed away. So he spent the entire flight wondering which of his sisters he would never see again. Until he was picked up at the airport and informed who had died, and how, he was in terrible turmoil. For this young boy to feel grief was a necessary part of living in golus. For him to feel confusion, for him to have to try to read people’s faces, was not necessary and only resulted from the yeshiva staff’s mishandling of the situation.

No Perfect Solution

Losing a loved one is never easy –and having to relate that news to children and help them deal with it may complicate the grieving process for the adults. However, perhaps one of themost compelling pieces of advice comes from Aaron Lederer, a psycho-analyst who founded RAD Consultancy, LLC: “You can’t stop bad things from happening to your children. All you can do as a parent is to help them to talk about it.”

An acclaimed educator and education consultant, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic work-shops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations, G.E.D. preparation, social skill training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at rifkaschonfeld@verizon.net.

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