“What really happened to grandma” asks your child after your mother, your child’s grandmother, died in a recent car accident. What happened is that grandma failed to yield a 4-way stop and was hit by another car, resulting in severe head trauma and ultimately a brain hemorrhage. Grandma died in an ambulance, on the way to the hospital.
“Talking about the unmentionable with kids is powerful and provides relief. If we allow them to express their mental picture of an accident, complete with horrid details, they learn that their imagination is more powerful than the truth in many situations” (Trozzi, 1999). Has this ever happened to you? Has your mind ever created a mental picture of something that you heard about that was very different from what actually transpired? This happens to children all the time and can be especially disconcerting when a child has experienced a loss.
Not sharing the facts, or not speaking of the ‘unmentionable,’ can negatively impact a child’s journey through the healing process. Something very sad has happened. Naturally we want nothing more than to protect our children. To tell them something simple, like “granny went to heaven”. When they ask for more details or clarification, we sometimes shut them down, or continue to explain in a non-factual manner. “Grandma was called to heaven to be with the angels and is now your guardian angel. She’s right here with us still”. Explanations like this can be very confusing to a child and might lead to their imagination creating its own explanation about what really happened to granny. The imagination can produce some pretty scary and often confusing scenarios.
Instead of answering your child’s questions in these ways, encourage your child to express her mental picture of the loss. Provide for them the space and time to share with you their interpretation or understanding of what happened. Provide them with clarifying facts (keep in mind that depending on your child’s age and development, they will have varying abilities to understand, and need different levels of detail). By answering your child’s questions and providing them with facts, you help your child distinguish between what really happened, and what your child might be imagining has happened. “Not talking about what we think is unmentionable isolates our children, as well as ourselves, and keeps them stuck in the mourning process” (Trozzi. 1999). Furthermore, by talking with your child about the ‘unmentionable” you have shown your child that they can trust you, and they can come to you and talk about their concerns and feelings. You have opened the door and given them ‘permission” to share their grief journey with you.
Oftentimes seeking professional help can assist you in maintaining open communication with your child during the mourning process- and in talking about the ‘unmentionable”. I am glad to assist you and your family, please feel free to reach out to me, and let me know if I can help.