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“We lost a student”, I cringed inwardly as I heard theprincipal make the announcement over the intercom. I was at an elementaryschool where a 4th grader had died and I had just addressed thecrisis team. I told the crisis team that we should use the word “died” whentalking about what had happened because other phrases can be confusing tochildren. Later that day, we were talking to a 1st grade class. Istarted the conversation using the words “I know all of you know a studentdied.” A little girl immediately raised her hand to say, “And we lost someonetoo!” In her mind, there was a child lost and we should be looking for him orher. One of her more sophisticatedclassmates chastised her by saying “that’s who we are talking about.”
“My daddy died”, mythen 3 year-old daughter told the clerk in the grocery store. The clerk hadasked her if she was going home to make dinner for her dad. I will writeanother blog later on well-meaning people making assumptions that turn out tobe hurtful. I am sure my daughter did not know what those words meant at thetime, 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 thatshe 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 notthere?” a 9 year-old boy asked my group. I could tell he was a bit of a handfuland all the talk of dad “being in a better place” led him to think it must bebecause his dad did not have to deal with him anymore. Children see themselvesas the center of the universe, so if something happens it must have hadsomething to do with them.
“My mom died from depression” an 8 year-old boy told hisgroup and then he went on to say the depression made her take her own life. Iwas glad that he understood an illness caused his mother’s death. Someone hadtaken time to explain depression and what led to his mother’s death. Inaddition, 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 bysuicide are most of the time suffering from mental illness. The better terms touse are “died by suicide or completed suicide.” These words help to lessen thestigma 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 howthey might hear our actual words. Usingconcrete language is important. Saying we lost someone or that they passed awaycan be very confusing to children. However, when we use the word “die” then wemust back it up with explanations of what that means. It means that person isno longer here physically and we must ensure children that the person is nolonger cold, hungry, lonely, or in pain.
It is also vital that we avoid euphemisms. Saying “they arein a better place” or “God needed them more” and the countless other commentsused to try to make someone feel better. Most of the time they are of littlecomfort for the bereaved and very confusing for children. Try thinking ofyourself for a moment as a 6 year-old and wondering “why did God need my dadmore than I need him?”
We can also talk open and honestly about the way in which peopledie. Talking in this manner helps lessen feelings of guilt, blame, andconfusion. Changing our actual words around subjects like suicide can actuallycreate a less stigmatized and more honest environment where we can discussissues of mental illness, addiction, and other underlying issues.I leaveyou 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 aboutour 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 notalone.” Yes, anything human is mentionable, but it is also important howwe mention those things.
Kate's Club accepts U.S. Surgeon General's highest civilian honor for mental health work