Random Acts Of Reading

How to Talk to Your Kids About Tough Topics

How to Talk to Your Kids About Tough Topics

By Jayne Freeman |



It is a special privilege for Random House Children's Books to be the publisher of Patricia MacLachlan and Steven Kellogg’s beautiful and moving picture book Snowflakes Fall. The vibrant, quietly moving, and life-affirming picture book began as the healing process of award-winning artist Steven Kellogg, who lived in Sandy Hook with his family for 35 years, and was an active member of the school and library communities both in Sandy Hook and Newtown. Compelled by sorrow and his idyllic remembrances, and wanting to give a gift back, Kellogg teamed with his longtime friend, Newbery Medalist Patricia MacLachlan, to create the exquisitely written and illustrated Snowflakes Fall in tribute to the qualities that make each life unique.

In honor of Newtown, Connecticut, and the village of Sandy Hook, Random House Children’s Books has donated to the Sandy Hook School Support Fund, is donating books to the national literacy organization, First Book, and has also donated to the Where Angels Play Foundation, to support the Sandy Ground Project: Where Angels Play. The funds will help build 26 playgrounds along the Hurricane Sandy-ravaged northeastern coast, to honor the lives of those lost at Sandy Hook Elementary.

Every parent, at some point or another, must navigate the difficult task of discussing death with her child. It might be regarding a family pet, a beloved grandparent, or a dear friend—death is never an easy topic to broach with kids (or even adults, for that matter). Just how we approach the topic varies greatly depending on the child’s age, but it also reflects a certain fundamental disconnect in our culture.

Recently I learned that in the first half of the 20th century death was as much a part of life as birth is today. Prior to the 1940s and ’50s, it was very common for a woman to bear several children and lose about half of them to common diseases, infections, and other unstoppable illnesses. It wasn’t easier for parents to endure these losses, but it was more accepted as a part of the entire life process. Prior to 1950, considering the multitude of rampant illnesses, plus a general life-expectancy of around age 60, you could be certain to witness many folks die throughout your own life. When people died prior to the medicalized era and modern funeral home tradition, the death and viewing occurred at home, where the family could process and mourn on their own time, in their own residence.

Today’s parents, and subsequently our children, do not see death as a natural part of the life process. In fact, I’ve heard many parents and grandparents clam up and become as awkward discussing death as they might be discussing reproduction and birth. Our two most natural life occurrences, book-ending our existence on this planet, have changed settings from generations ago. To one extent or another, they both tend to happen outside the home in a medical facility—thereby separating the experience from immediate family.

It’s no wonder that parents today stumble through the topic—often at a loss for words to express death, dying, and the grieving process. Parents may have a vague idea of what to say or not say, but the entire topic is shrouded in uncomfortable attempts at making sense of something none of us really can articulate. That’s why most experts on the topic suggest keeping explanations as simple as possible and appropriate to the child’s age. Let them ask questions and don’t hesitate to say that you don’t know or that “no one really knows” when asked more abstract questions on the hereafter.

One excellent way to introduce the topic for exploration is to read a book with your child. In October, Random House released Snowflakes Fall, a picture book written by Newbery medalist Patricia MacLachlan and illustrated by Steven Kellogg. This poetic book is a tribute to the children lost in last year’s unthinkable tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The story is told in sweeping metaphor so that it’s easily absorbed by younger children yet provides an excellent talking point for older children who can interpret the metaphor of individual snowflakes, their fragility and the inevitable seasons of life.

Our contemporary culture, with its dwindling traditions, does not make it easier for us to introduce the topic of death to our children. Even a simple unspoken expression that one is in mourning has gone completely “out of style.” Culturally, we have lost our ability to translate a tacit expression of grief or loss. For example, dating back to the Roman Empire, it was common tradition for those in mourning to wear all black. For women, they often wore veils—and for widows they might dress in black for the rest of their lives. Today, if you wore all black, you’d barely provoke a second glance, let alone send a message of mourning to those around you. This is another reason why children remain innocent of death throughout their community and culture, unless it is accentuated within your church or temple.

Last month, when a young adult friend of ours died suddenly in a bike accident, my daughters (ages 11 and 13) became firsthand witnesses to a surprising display of grief and mourning. Both girls were thoroughly unaccustomed to seeing adults cry or a community gather together to mourn a senseless loss. Understandably, many parents have the instinct to protect their children from exposure to funerals, wakes, and services. Depending on the religious background of the deceased, a wake also includes a viewing where the body is displayed, unnaturally powdered and made-up, in an elegantly padded coffin. This is uncomfortable for many adults to see—just as it is for children.

In our case, I never thought for a moment that my kids shouldn’t be included in the memorial service. Unlike a religious service that might include a casket and a glimpse at the shell left behind, this service held no allusion to the mortal remains. Plus it was going to be held in the unlikely (yet entirely appropriate) location of the restaurant our friend had helped create. The memorial was seen as a celebration of life with food, music, and good company, rather than a grim and dark affair. Naturally, I wanted my girls to be a part of it.

It was important to me that my kids saw that there was laughter mixed with tears at the service. There was food and friendly chatter punctuated by some crying, solemn silences and sympathetic thoughtful expressions. Watching this wide-eyed and quietly, the reality was beginning to solidify with the kids. And when we were able to discuss it later, I was relieved by my daughters’ ability to cope and accept death—even one so unnatural and sudden as this. Parents will find that most children have a more elevated and philosophical way of accepting death than adults do. They will frequently surprise you with their observations and own method of processing.

And therein lies the best lesson for keeping open communication and expression during times of sorrow. Somehow in their own realm of innocence and limited life experience children may show you something you didn’t know about love, life, and death. They may be the ones who provide the most helpful teachable and supportive moments for adults. In our case, there was simply no shielding them from the enormity of this event. My girls watched the many ways their parents, as well as their community, went through a mourning process—and that was a life lesson they won’t soon forget.

For a free, downloadable teacher's guide to Snowflakes Fall, click here.

Suggested reading on death and mourning for your child: