“We lost a student”, I cringed inwardly as I heard the principal make the announcement over the intercom. I was at an elementary school where a 4th grader had died and I had just addressed the crisis team. I told the crisis team that we should use the word “died” when talking about what had happened because other phrases can be confusing to children. Later that day, we were talking to a 1st grade class. I started the conversation using the words “I know all of you know a student died.” A little girl immediately raised her hand to say, “And we lost someone too!” In her mind, there was a child lost and we should be looking for him or her. One of her more sophisticated classmates chastised her by saying “that’s who we are talking about.”
“My daddy died”, my then 3 year-old daughter told the clerk in the grocery store. The clerk had asked her if she was going home to make dinner for her dad. I will write another blog later on well-meaning people making assumptions that turn out to be hurtful. I am sure my daughter did not know what those words meant at the time, but when she looked at pictures of her dad I would tell her that he died. As she got older I gave her more information and she seemed to understand that she had a dad that got sick and died when she was a baby.
“If my dad is in a better place, is it because I am not there?” a 9 year-old boy asked my group. I could tell he was a bit of a handful and all the talk of dad “being in a better place” led him to think it must be because his dad did not have to deal with him anymore. Children see themselves as the center of the universe, so if something happens it must have had something to do with them.
“My mom died from depression” an 8 year-old boy told his group and then he went on to say the depression made her take her own life. I was glad that he understood an illness caused his mother’s death. Someone had taken time to explain depression and what led to his mother’s death. In addition, changing other language around suicide is important. Best practice is not to use the term “committed suicide” any longer. People “commit” crimes. People who die by suicide are most of the time suffering from mental illness. The better terms to use are “died by suicide or completed suicide.” These words help to lessen the stigma around suicide which is vital to helping those bereaved by suicide.
You see, words matter especially when dealing with children. We talk to children, but I think sometimes we do not give much thought to how they might hear our actual words. Using concrete language is important. Saying we lost someone or that they passed away can be very confusing to children. However, when we use the word “die” then we must back it up with explanations of what that means. It means that person is no longer here physically and we must ensure children that the person is no longer cold, hungry, lonely, or in pain.
It is also vital that we avoid euphemisms. Saying “they are in a better place” or “God needed them more” and the countless other comments used to try to make someone feel better. Most of the time they are of little comfort for the bereaved and very confusing for children. Try thinking of yourself for a moment as a 6 year-old and wondering “why did God need my dad more than I need him?”
We can also talk open and honestly about the way in which people die. Talking in this manner helps lessen feelings of guilt, blame, and confusion. Changing our actual words around subjects like suicide can actually create a less stigmatized and more honest environment where we can discuss issues of mental illness, addiction, and other underlying issues. I leave you with a quote from Fred Rogers that I have hanging over my desk. “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.” Yes, anything human is mentionable, but it is also important how we mention those things.