How To Communicate With Children On Difficult Subjects Such As Death

Mar 4, 2019
Originally published on March 5, 2019 10:13 am
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Talking about death with children is never going to be easy, but the folks who make "Sesame Street" have some ideas about how to make it better. Education reporter Cory Turner has been talking with them and sat down with Rachel Martin.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Most of us at some point, especially parents, have had to answer a really tough question from a child in our lives. For example, the big one, what is death? Or another one, why do some people have darker skin than other people? Well, two of NPR's education reporters have teamed up with Sesame Workshop, the experts behind "Sesame Street," to help you answer those really tough questions. Together they've created a new audio guide on parenting. It's part of NPR's big new series called Life Kit.

Cory, we should just say that you are not just a co-host of this podcast. You and Anya Kamenetz, who is your partner in this, are also parents, right?

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Absolutely. I have two boys. She has two girls. And honestly, this whole project came out of a really painful parenting moment I had two years ago. My mother-in-law died fairly suddenly, and it was really hard on my boys. They asked a lot of questions about death for the first time. And I felt powerless. So as a reporter, I just start looking for resources. And it turns out Sesame had put together a whole toolkit for families going through grief and death. I called them up. They invited me to New York. I did some interviews. I met Grover.

And as I was leaving that day, I was about to get in the cab, and it occurred to me I didn't just want to talk with Sesame about death. I had so many other parenting questions - about race and scary stuff in the news and divorce and household chores. And I know Anya felt the same way. And so two years later, here we are.

MARTIN: So using your death episode as an example, I mean, what kind of things did you learn?

TURNER: Yeah. Well, for this one, the really exciting thing is we got to use one of "Sesame's" most famous episodes. You probably remember it. I know I did. It's the death of Mr. Hooper...

MARTIN: I do.

TURNER: ...Who ran the corner store. The actor who played Mr. Hooper had died. And the show decided to use this as a really important moment to help kids understand death. So there's this moment early on when Big Bird shows up. He's drawn a portrait of Mr. Hooper. He wants to give it to him. And he asks all the adults there, he says, where is he?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

SONIA MANZANO: (As Maria) Big Bird, don't you remember we told you? Mr. Hooper died. He's dead.

CAROLL SPINNEY: (As Big Bird) Oh, yeah. I remember. Well, I'll give it to him when he comes back.

TURNER: Yeah. And, Rachel, this cut gets to one reason why it's so hard to talk about death with kids.

MARTIN: Right.

TURNER: So Anya and I spoke with one of the experts at Sesame. Her name is Rosemarie Truglio. She's a developmental psychologist and senior vice president of education and research at Sesame Workshop. And she told us that a hospice social worker had once told her, using a really interesting analogy, that kids process this big stuff like they eat an apple.

ROSEMARIE TRUGLIO: They take a bite, maybe two bites. They put it down.

TURNER: Put it down, leave it on the couch.

TRUGLIO: Leave it on the couch.

TURNER: Kick it on the floor.

TRUGLIO: Kick it on the floor.

TURNER: Pick it back up. Take two more bites.

TRUGLIO: Exactly. That's probably how they're going to experience death, as well.

TURNER: So what that means for us as parents, Rachel, is we need to be patient. Don't give kids more than they can handle at any one time. And just accept that this is not going to be one conversation.

MARTIN: Right. But the conversation itself can be tough, (laughter) right?

TURNER: Absolutely.

MARTIN: What did you learn about the words you should use?

TURNER: Totally. So this was one of the biggest takeaways for me. You need to be clear, and you need to be concrete. So again, Rosemarie from Sesame, she told us one of the common mistakes that we make as grown-ups - and I know I've done it - is we don't like to use the word died. So instead, we use euphemisms.

TRUGLIO: Passed away, you know, sorry for your loss. Went on a long, long journey. We put the dog to sleep. That's a really big one. And the reason for that is that if you're telling me now that the dog went to sleep and is not going to wake up and died, well, I go to sleep every night. Am I going to die? You go to sleep every night, Mommy and Daddy. Are you going to die? So it's really important to use the word died.

TURNER: And not just died, but also be really clear. When you die, your heart stops. Your body stops working. It's hard to think about saying that...

MARTIN: Yeah.

TURNER: ...For me, but that's what they say you should do.

MARTIN: You've got to name it, what actually happens.

TURNER: Yeah.

MARTIN: What'd you learn about the grieving part of death?

TURNER: Yeah. I mean, obviously, there are big emotions here, and we need to be honest about that. Kids take their cues from us, and so the best thing we can do as parents is to model healthy grieving. There's nothing wrong with crying in front of our kids. And "Sesame" really got to this in the Mr. Hooper episode. One of the most powerful moments is when one of the grown-ups, Bob, cries in front of Big Bird.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

BOB MCGRATH: (As Bob) It's - it'll never be the same around here without him. But you know something? We can all be very happy that we had a chance to be with him and to know him and to love him a lot when he was here.

MARTIN: What about the saying goodbye part of death, right? Funerals themselves. Memorial services. Those can be really hard for kids. What did you learn about that?

TURNER: Yeah. Absolutely. And I actually felt like I came full circle on this because this past December, we had another death in our family. It was my wife's grandmother. The boys called her Nana Betty (ph). We all flew to Kansas for the funeral. But I really felt like this time, I was ready because just a week before, I had talked with Rosemarie at Sesame about what to do in situations like this. And she said when it comes to funerals, now, you need to tell them what to expect. What will it be like? Be clear and concrete. But then give them a choice.

So here's a little bit of tape of my wife in the rental car with our two boys explaining this big choice they have.

RACHEL TAYLOR: So her body's been fixed up, and it'll be in a coffin, in a casket. It will look kind of like her, but not entirely 'cause her - you know, her spark and her spirit's not inside anymore. So she'll look different.

TURNER: Now, my 6-year-old, Rowan, he thought about it for a few seconds. And then he said, yes, he'd like to see her. And then here's my older son, Eamon, who was 9 at the time.

EAMON: Yes. I do want to see her body.

TAYLOR: Really?

EAMON: I've known her my whole life, and I can't just be afraid to see her body just because she's dead.

MARTIN: Wow.

TURNER: Yeah. Both my boys walked right up to that casket. They knew what to expect, and they said goodbye.

MARTIN: Hard lessons and hard conversations but so important to have. We're glad you're doing this. Cory Turner is an NPR education reporter and the co-host of the new Life Kit audio guide on parenting with Sesame Workshop. You can find it at npr.org/lifekit or at applepodcasts.com/lifekit. Cory, thanks so much.

TURNER: Thanks for having me, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.