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telling a child about a death

evelyn's picture

hi everyone. We came back from our long weekend a few hours ago (KatharaDeftera - First day of Lent and kite-flying day in Greece) to terrible news. Yanni's nona - his godmother - our beloved Aggy died in a motorcycle accident Saturday night. Friends and family waited for us to return so that I could find out in a way that might be less obvious to Yanni.

He is very close to his nona - worships her. How do I tell him? Do I do it now, or should I wait? Make up a story that she's gone away for a while? I just don't know how to deal with this. He's the most sensitive of my 3 and I'm worried this may shock him. It sure as heck shocked me, but I have seen a few more things, he's never had to deal with death.

Please advise.

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In life, learn the rules so that you know how to break them properly.
AnnL's picture

(post #49690, reply #1 of 93)

How old is he?  I don't think you should tell him she's just "gone away", that makes it sound like she'll be back and then when he does find out, he's likely to feel lied to or betrayed.  Are you religious?  You could simply tell him she's gone to heaven to be with God.  I'm sure others with children will have better advice than I have. 

I am very sorry for the loss of such a close friend in such a sudden, tragic way.  My thoughts are with you and your family and especially Yanni.

"The elders were wise.  They knew that man's heart, away from nature, becomes hard; they knew that lack of respect for growing, living things, soon led to lack of respect for humans, too."  Chief Luther Standing Bear, Lakota Sioux

"The elders were wise.  They knew that man's heart, away from nature, becomes hard; they knew that lack of respect for growing, living things, soon led to lack of respect for humans, too."  Chief Luther Standing Bear, Lakota Sioux

Jillsifer's picture

(post #49690, reply #2 of 93)

First, I'm so sorry about your family's loss.

How old is he? Does your family have a particular religious or philosophical viewpoint about what happens after a person dies?

I think I'd definitely NOT say she's gone away "for a while," because that might set up an expectation that she'll come back in, say, six months or two years or something. I have a bias in favor of getting the truth out there early on--so you only have ONE horrible thing to deal with.

I'm really sorry and I will keep you in my prayers.


Christmas is the season for kindling the fire of hospitality in the hall, the genial flame of charity in the heart.

-- Washington Irving

Marcia's picture

(post #49690, reply #3 of 93)

I'm awfully sorry for your loss, Evelyn.

My grandfather's death was kept from me when I was four, and it was a huge mistake. Please don't tell your son that his godmother has "gone away". However old he is, there is a way to be honest, but how and what to tell Yanni depends on his age.

Gretchen's picture

(post #49690, reply #4 of 93)

I don't know how old he is but I think he should be told so that he can begin to understand about death. It is really important for children to know this. It is a separation and it is sad but it is the reality of life.  My mother lived with us that last 2 months of her life when our kids were about 7, 9, and 11. It was a very life-instructional time I think. I am sorry for all of your loss.


evelyn's picture

(post #49690, reply #5 of 93)

I have to do some thinking about this one. Even Aggy's mother told me not to tell Yanni yet. Yanni is 10, for the record. I do feel that he should be told, and I believe he should be allowed to grieve for this woman who has been such an important part of his life rather than allowing time to help him 'forget'. Unfortunately, it appears that I am the only one who thinks so. Everyone here is advising me to say she's out of the country for work-related reasons (she was an actress). Even though we are practising Greek-Orthodox, we are not that religious. I guess I'll think about it for a day or two and do some research.

fighting for peace is like screwing for virginity

In life, learn the rules so that you know how to break them properly.
Jillsifer's picture

(post #49690, reply #7 of 93)

That's interesting--and a bit shocking--that you're a minority of one. And I DON'T mean to come across as snotty or b*tchy, but of the people who disagree with you, how do they plan to handle the inevitable "When is she coming back?" and "Where did she go?" and such.

Bless your heart. You have a tough one to solve. Please know that we're all with you and we care.



I've never been a millionaire, but I just know I'd be darling at it.

Christmas is the season for kindling the fire of hospitality in the hall, the genial flame of charity in the heart.

-- Washington Irving

Canuck's picture

(post #49690, reply #10 of 93)

And how do you eventually tell him? And explain the lie? I think going to the funeral, if he wants to and it won't be too upsetting, is important closure. My DDs went to their great uncle's funeral. Two wanted to see the open casket, so we held them while we did, and they were reassured that although he looked like Uncle Dave, he obviously wasn't the same. He wasn't scary; he was just quiet and peaceful.

I'm with you; this is a tough one when you're the minority.

Jean's picture

(post #49690, reply #12 of 93)

Please don't lie to him Evelyn.  When he finds out that you did, and he WILL, you will have lost his trust--what else has she lied to me about?. Kids are stronger than we think they are. If you tell him that she will live on in the loving memories of her friends and family it will help him to deal with her loss.

Youth is fleeting. Immaturity, however, can last forever.

A  clear conscience is usually the sign of a bad memory.
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evelyn's picture

(post #49690, reply #14 of 93)

I don't know if I want him going to the funeral. This is a young woman dying very tragically, and I don't think it will be open casket because of her condition after the accident, and there will be a lot of talk that I don't think will be suitable for a child to hear. Bear in mind that this is a GREEK funeral. Without wanting to intentionally insert humour here (although I could really do with a laugh), if you saw My Big Fat Greek Wedding you'll have a pretty good indication that Greeks are pretty over the top about everything, and talking graphically about details of the accident at the funeral will probably be par for the course. I know Yanni couldn't handle that. If I tell him, it will probably be in a couple of days, so that I can deal with closure too, and be better able to cope with his emotions.

fighting for peace is like screwing for virginity

In life, learn the rules so that you know how to break them properly.
Canuck's picture

(post #49690, reply #18 of 93)

Hi Evelyn,

I've been to a Greek Orthodox wedding (DH's grandmother),  and it was very dramatic. That was 25 years ago, so I do see your point. I didn't realize that there would be a lot of discussion either; you know Yanni best and how to help him handle this.

Gretchen's picture

(post #49690, reply #21 of 93)

I have been to a Greek funeral, and in some ways it is the most personal supportive service I've ever seen. Evelyn, your son needs to confront this all on his own. Honestly.  I think he needs to go to the funeral.


CookiM0nster's picture

(post #49690, reply #22 of 93)

I think you should tell him, and do it right away, for all the reasons everyone else has already given.

When I was young I had a great uncle whom I was very close to. His death was kept from me, and I still carry the hurt and resentment of being lied to about it, and being robbed of the chance to go to his funeral with me today.

I can also tell you that psychologists who have done research on this strongly recommend that you tell the child. Children need to grieve too, and they handle it best by being allowed to grieve along with everyone else.

Gretchen's picture

(post #49690, reply #23 of 93)

And there are a lot of children's books that are good for kids to read to explain to them the feelings they are having--and how everyone can be "having such a good time" (at lunch, dinner, etc.) when she is "gone".


Marie Louise's picture

(post #49690, reply #53 of 93)

I went to my great-grandmother's funeral when I was very young-two or three, I think. They took me up to see her so I could say goodbye. I have no recollection of how in the world they would have explained this to me, but knowing my parents, they probably told me the truth and told me to go up and say goodbye.

All I remember about the event is seeing my Grandfather-a big, burly German guy w/ the hugest hands and the warmest smile-crying at the open casket.

I didn't suffer any trauma about it, and it was a very positive experience to understand that it is okay, even for big burly guys, to be sad and cry sometimes.

You know your son and I don't, but it seems to me that it would ultimately be a positive life learning experience.

Canuck's picture

(post #49690, reply #54 of 93)

I think Evelyn has a very good point about the funeral. DH's grandmother's was very different to any funeral I'd been to. DH's mother threw herself over the coffin, and many women were shrieking and wailing. Everyone attending was asked to kiss his grandmother; I declined because I felt very uncomfortable. Obviously, this is a cultural thing and I was the one out of place. However, I was in my early 20s at the time and it has stayed with me. I've since wondered how I will handle any other funerals from that side of the family in terms of my kids, who would be very upset by them. I would normally want to include the girls in funerals, but Evelyn is right that Yanni can get closure another way (perhaps if there's a visitation, going at the very beginning and leaving before others arrive).

Canuck's picture

(post #49690, reply #8 of 93)

Hi Evelyn,

I'm so sorry for your loss. I have a 10-year-old too, who's pretty sensitive. She hadn't had a major loss, but this weekend we learned that the neighbour's dog (who they grew up with and considered ours) would die soon. Sedona died yesterday and all three of my daughters grieved in their own way. The past few days have not been easy, and there have been many, many tears. However, death is as much a part of life as birth, and learning about it surrounded by family is surely the best way to learn to cope. Having a chance to discuss our memories, and different ways of grieving, has been a important for all of us.

Carole4's picture

(post #49690, reply #9 of 93)

Only you know your Yanni. But, it has always amazed me how well children can accept tragic events...Be honest...Don't build up lie after little white lie.

So sorry for your loss.

MadMom's picture

(post #49690, reply #11 of 93)

Please, please, please don't tell him she has "gone away."  Tell him the truth.  Tell him that it's okay to grieve for her, but that some day he will think more of all the wonderful times they had together and less about the fact that she is no longer there.  Help him get through this with your honesty.

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shywoodlandcreature's picture

(post #49690, reply #13 of 93)

Another vote here for honesty. The "she's gone away" line won't wash, and grieving for someone is part of loving them. Your son needs, and deserves the truth, and the chance to say "goodbye" and grieve. It's hard, I know, but oh, so necessary.

"the meat was prime,/the produce sublime,/but nevertheless/the dinner was/a horrible mess."
Samchang, 2007

evelyn's picture

(post #49690, reply #15 of 93)

I definitely won't use any euphemisms. I will use the word 'die' so he can understand the finality of the mortal life.

fighting for peace is like screwing for virginity

In life, learn the rules so that you know how to break them properly.
scrubble4's picture

(post #49690, reply #29 of 93)

Evelyn:  I am sorry for your sadness and pain in loosing a friend.  I am thankful you are being so thoughtful about how to tell your son.  In my years of working with children the age of your son, the one thing I know is that they sense when adults aren't telling them the truth and really worry about what the truth might be. 

I agree with Shywoodland Creature that grieving is a part of loving.  I have often shared a story book with children "The Tenth Good Thing About Barney" by Judith Viorst.  I paste an excerpt from Amazon review for you here. 

The plot is extremely simple and spare, but the book depicts grief very well, and so we understand just how broken-hearted the little boy is, and how much he loved his cat. The Tenth Good Thing About Barney is an excellent springboard for families of every religious persuasion (including agnostics and atheists) to discuss what they feel happens after we die. The book helps children put into words many questions that they might be too young to articulate, and helps parents answer them for him as best you can. The writing is excellent, and perfectly captures the voice of a young boy, and the illustrations are elegant. It's a classic book, and belongs in every library.

Have confidence in your skill as a Mom, to guide your son through his grief.  You will do a good job.  Take care.  Scrubble4

helena1's picture

(post #49690, reply #39 of 93)

I'm so sorry for your loss Evelyn.

My sister has a 10 year old boy, who onbiously needed to be told his grandpa had died last week. He was very, very upset, as he was very close to my dad, but soon enough he began to ask many questions. He also asked his mom if he could read something about grandpa during the funeral (which we were all happy about and he did great). He refused to go 'see' grandpa in the funeral home, and that was perfectly fine with us. You will see that their minds will wander all over the place. One minute he will be grieving, the next he will be laughing about a game he's about to play. And it's good that way. They deal in their own way, it's just very important to be there for him and answer the questions he will probably have. Noone of us ever lied or withheld the truth, because that is a concept that he knows *very* well, and that is something he would be mad about I'm sure. Just talking from my personal experience. Hugs to you...

evelyn's picture

(post #49690, reply #41 of 93)

thanks for sharing that helena, it helps a lot. I am decided on telling him Sunday. We will go to the square, which is where he spent his last day with his nona, and then go to church and finally visit her. That is the plan. I'll let you know.

fighting for peace is like screwing for virginity

In life, learn the rules so that you know how to break them properly.
Syrah's picture

(post #49690, reply #43 of 93)

One thing that might help him (and it helped my 24 year old self when my uncle died), was to be reminded that when he is having fun and doing things that he did with his nona, it makes her happy.

I believe in champagne...

"Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and, above all, confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something, and that this thing, at whatever cost, must be obtained." -Marie Curie

helena1's picture

(post #49690, reply #44 of 93)

That sounds like a good plan. I wish you strength, but I know there is no better person to tell him then you. Hope it won't be too hard on him.

pamilyn's picture

(post #49690, reply #83 of 93)

Evelyn, I am so sorry for your loss. I must say my two cents. If my mother didn't tell me about the loss of my Nonna until AFTER the funeral I would be very angry. I understand that you don't want him to go to the funeral ,so be it, but he should know about the death as soon as possible. If he is as sensitive as you say, keeping it from him will just make it worse. I would think "everyone knew but me" and would be very angry. He may really want to go to the funeral and say his goodbye with everyone else. It seems he has the right to know that she died ASAP. Just my two cents, Pamilyn

The purpose of Art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls

The purpose of Art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls

BarbaraK's picture

(post #49690, reply #16 of 93)

I am so sorry.  You must be grieving terribly -- and on top of that, you have to worry about how to tell your son.

I agree absolutely with everyone on this board:  you should tell your son.  Ten is not that young; it's amazing what they know about, can deal with, and what they absorb from the atmosphere.  He will know something is going on, and will only feel confused and maybe left out if he finds out later.  How does he grieve later, when (eventually) he finds out?  And there are trust issues -- you want him to know that you are honest with him, and that you have confidence that together, as a family, you can handle this. 

My very wonderful mother died of cancer when my kids were 2 and 4.  They knew what was happening, and were part of the family grieving that went on.  I tried to focus on my mother's life, when my kids and I talked about it all.  I was pretty devastated, but it was important -- for all of us -- that we faced it together, as a family.

I am not sure if this makes sense.  (It is difficult to be articulate about this, even after so many years.)  But the bottom line is, I think you are absolutely, 100% right in wanting to tell Yanni.  He has a right to know, a right to grieve with everyone else, and to know that he (and you) will be terribly, terribly sad, but nevertheless will be able to go on.

Best wishes to you.


moxie's picture

(post #49690, reply #17 of 93)

Evelyn, I am so sorry about your loss.  Yanni is my Madeline's age and I would surely tell her. Don't be suprised if he asks questions that seem a little gruesome as he tries to get a handle on it -- but I would also let him decide about the service. Children can have an instinctive compassion, and can handle things that suprise us.

When Maddy was in kindergarten, her teacher's mother passed away in an accident. She was a lovely woman who volunteered several times a week in the class, and I struggled with what to tell Maddy. But in the end, told her the truth and she *asked* to go to the funeral.  I asked if she was sure, that it was going to be a very sad time. And her answer still floors me -- she said "I know it will be sad, but I will make Miss Jordan remember happy things when she sees me, so I need to go."

"I have always relied on the kindness of strangers." - Blanche Dubois

AnnL's picture

(post #49690, reply #24 of 93)

I will also jump in and give the experience of someone who lost contact with my godparents when I was very young.  I loved them dearly.  They had no children of their own, so they treated me as their daughter and I thought of them as second parents. They moved out of state when I was about 6 or 7 and there were a few visits for the first couple of years, but eventually my parents lost contact with them.  They stopped responding to calls and letters.  I was really upset about that.  In my child's mind, I felt that I had done something or hadn't been good enough for them to want to continue to be a part of my life.  I still wonder what happened to them. 

If you tell Yanni she's out of the country, he'll wonder why she didn't say goodbye, why she never calls, when will she come back.  All these questions that will require you to lie more and more until eventually he will know the truth and he'll know that you lied.  He'll have two hurts to deal with at once.

"The elders were wise.  They knew that man's heart, away from nature, becomes hard; they knew that lack of respect for growing, living things, soon led to lack of respect for humans, too."  Chief Luther Standing Bear, Lakota Sioux

"The elders were wise.  They knew that man's heart, away from nature, becomes hard; they knew that lack of respect for growing, living things, soon led to lack of respect for humans, too."  Chief Luther Standing Bear, Lakota Sioux

mer's picture

(post #49690, reply #25 of 93)

Don't lie to him.  Tell him in the most gentle but truthful way possible.  Let him ask questions and dont overwhelm him with info.  Let him deal with his grief along with everyone else, not later once everyone else is over it. 

If everyone else works together to grieve, then he will be able to grieve.  However, if you lie to him, he will be the only one to grieve that.  That will be a much harder thing for him to get over.  I know that you are under a lot of pressure to tell him something that is easier to deal with, but you are the only one who he would blame for deceiving him, not the extended family.  Kids are smarter than your family is giving credit and they listen to everything that adults say, so he will figure this out very quickly.  In a few years, he will be a teenager.   Is this the way that you want him to deal with difficult topics with you?

I was 2 when one grandfather died and 9 when my other grandfather died, who I was very close to.  I remember his funeral, but I am so glad that I was allowed and encouraged to participate at the level that was appropriate for a child. 

I had a best friend who had a dog who was suddenly given away to a "farm" when we were in 7th grade.  She was in college before we found out that he wasn't living happily on a farm, but had been hit by a car.  It took her a very long time to forgive her parents for the lie.