The toughest question of all: Marshall Ward writes about Max and Beatrice Centre for Children's Grief and Palliatve Care

Reprinted from original in Waterloo Chronicle by Marshall Ward, April 25, 2007

"No matter how big or small, how weak or strong -- everything dies. We experience the sun and the moon, the wind and the rain. We learn to dance and laugh. Then we die."

- from the book The Fall of Freddie the Leaf

by Leo Buscaglia

My four-year-old daughter recently asked me what it means when people die.

Unprepared for the question, I felt the need to protect her and told her we would talk about it another time. Fortunately for me, Wilfrid Laurier University's faculty of social work provided a free public seminar last week on talking to children about death and dying.

The speaker was Ceilidh Eaton Russell, a councillor at the Max and Beatrice Wolfe Centre for Children's Grief and Palliative Care.

Russell said most parents don't think about explaining death to their children until a relative dies.

"We prefer not to talk about it until we have to," said Russell. "Lots of caring people do the wrong thing for all the right reasons, and many parents don't want to expose their children to death and dying."

Russell said children do not need protection; they need competent guidance and honest answers to their questions about life and death.

"Children ask questions in a very direct way," said Russell. "Seizing the moment is important, and the best time to talk about the subject is when they want to."

In the seminar, I learned that if a child has been protected against sorrow, they will still react when they realize what has happened. Nobody can avoid grief; you can only postpone it.

Often, trying to protect a child will only cause them unnecessary anxiety and perhaps even guilt.

Children less than eight years of age are often interested in death and have complex concepts about it, but are not able to grasp its finality.

When telling a child that someone has died, make sure the word "died" is used, said Russell, using clear and concrete language.

"Children do not understand euphemisms," said Russell. "(Euphemisms) may help an adult feel better but they won't help a child understand what has happened. Avoid using 'sleep' -- kids worry that anyone could go to sleep and never wake up. "Also (avoid): 'We lost him' -- kids wonder where the person is and why they aren't looking for him.

"And 'passed away' is too vague for kids to make sense of."

Russell also stressed that when parents don't have an answer to a child's question, they should say so. It's OK for children to know that there are questions that adults, and even doctors, don't have answers to.

Listening carefully when a child asks a question is important, and it's helpful to understand what they know so far. Russell said kids are good at learning words and how to use them without always knowing their meaning.

"If a child asks, 'Am I going to die?' tell them that they will someday," explained Russell. "And if they ask whether a parent is going to die, they should be told that all people die eventually, while reassuring them that they will always be loved and taken care of."

I was especially touched by a story Russell told about a little girl who lost her father in a car accident. He taught her how to draw, and her mother often told her that if she keeps practising, she will always share an energy with him -- and that, in a way, her daddy is still teaching her.

Curious to know how questions about death and dying are approached at school, I asked my daughter's junior-kindergarten teacher. She lent me the book, The Fall of Freddie the Leaf.

In the book, Freddie and his companion leaves change with the passing seasons, finally falling to the ground with a winter's snow. With striking photographs, it's an inspiring and simple story illustrating the delicate balance between life and death.

At the end of her seminar, Russell shared a few books as well, with titles like Gentle Willow and When Dinosaurs Die.

"Also, sometimes kids aren't always looking for wisdom," Russell concluded. "Just a hug."

Marshall Ward is a visual artist and an independent filmmaker. Email is welcome at

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