Nancy Cooper: Explaining Death to Our 6 Year Old

The one thing that has been made abundantly clear during the past five days is just what a special human being Nancy was. Today’s press conference gave us all a clue as to why. What an incredible family unit the Rentz’s are. Having the fortitude and poise to share openly with the community their memories of Nancy at this time is nothing short of a miracle. I imagine that being raised in the kind of authentic and loving environment that Mr and Mrs Rentz created for their kids contributed in a very large way to Nancy being the wonderful person she was.

As I watched the news conference, I wondered to myself if I am up to the challenge of orchestrating the same kind of environment for our kids. Naturally, this tragedy brings with it a huge amount of parental responsibility. Task one for all of us as parents in this community is doing the right thing vis-a-vis our children. No-one wants to have to deal with the challenge of discussing difficult concepts like death with kids at such an early age, but circumstance has dictated that this must be addressed NOW. Looking on the bright side (humor is important remember) talking to my boys about sex when the time comes will be a walk in the park after this ; )

Back to a very serious topic. We have had a tremendous amount of help from local therapists and social workers who deal specifically with the issue of death and grief with children. Some great high level pointers are posted on the blog created for Nancy here.

Now, this may all seem straightforward and common sense to you as you read this from afar. But it is VERY different as you face the reality of having a discussion with your child about this. Of the ten or so couples that were counseled to do this as soon as possible on Tuesday night, only one couple did. One other friend was forced into addressing it as their children were told about it at school. Based on her experience, believe me, you do NOT want this message to be received by anyone other than you. This is one of the most important discussions you will have with your children EVER. It is not something to be outsourced or wished away. It MUST be addressed and the sooner the better, no matter how difficult or impossible it seems right now.

This morning our little guy (three on Monday) was sleeping in, so Theresa and I reluctantly seized the moment to share the sad news with our 6 year old. We took what worked for another friend of ours in terms of wording and we heeded the key counsel to let the child lead in the questioning. Here is what happened.

We told our son that miss Nancy had been found by the police and that when she was found she was badly hurt. We stopped there to see if our son wanted to go further. He talked about how he got hurt one time when he fell down and that there was lots of blood. We could have stopped there, but we KNOW it is important to get to the discussion on Death before he hears it elsewhere and the likelihood of that increases day by day. So we pressed on. My wonderful wife explained to our son that miss Nancy was hurt so badly that she died. My son’s eyes got very big. He paused a while…and immediately asked “Does that mean that Bella doesn’t have a Mommy anymore…who is going to take care of her?” He also asked if Bella’s daddy was dead too. We said he was not and that there are many people who love Bella and Katie like their Grandparents and Uncles and Aunties who will take care of them. He then went back to playing with his transformer and seemed to be moving on. We told him if there are any questions he wanted to ask we are there for them. He said we had answered his questions, and he then paraphrased them: “I asked you if miss Nancy was dead and I asked you who is going to take care of Bella.” We told him if he had any other questions that he can ask us at any time. We also told him that mommy and daddy are very sad that miss Nancy is dead and sometimes we will be crying or quiet because we are sad. The therapists told us that modeling grief is a very good thing to do…plus it happens whether you want it or not, so it is good to know you don’t have to hide it.

We then went upstairs and the news conference was on. My son sat on my lap and I pointed out Bella’s Grandfather, Grandmother Aunts and Uncles. He made the link that those people were like his grandparents. He listened a bit because he said “she said Bella.” Then he went to eat “Daddy’s cereal” and play with his transformer some more. That was it. Now I know there will be more and that this is just the beginning of the processing and synthesis that must go on. But my point is, that for now at least…THAT WAS IT. As with many things we worry about as parents the actual event itself was almost a non-event. Kids are resilient and as the therapists reminded us we always envision the worst and we are often surprised by our kids non-chalant response.

I am now at Ice Skating practice with our 6 year old. I find blogging while watching him be a normal kid smiling and having fun very theraputic. I am not doing this for anyone other than me, but I do hope that the experiences I share very transparently and authentically will help others deal with similar issues. Right now, he seems to be doing fine. Personally I feel a huge weight off my shoulders. I was dreading having to do this and I was trying to rationalize why to not do it. But the fact is that all kids in this community will come to know about Nancy, the only question then is do you want to control and deliver the message in a way that minimizes fallout or do you leave this up to chance. Next on the agenda will be the concept of murder….hopefully we have a few days to get our heads around that one…but we move on. As Mr. Rentz described today, you are in this bubble and you just take on tasks as they pop up. The trick here though is being prepared for when it does. My only advice is to get help. There are many experts out there who know the best way to convey these difficult concepts to children in a way that is developmentally appropriate. Please do all you can to seek out their help.

It is not easy to do, but having swallowed hard and taken the plunge, I can tell you from experience that I feel a whole lot better right now. One key indicator is that I am now very, very tired. I guess my corticosterone levels got flushed in some way shape or form as a result completing this first step on a long journey of more acute and purposeful parenting.

For those of you who have not done this yet. I wish you all the courage and strength in the world and I urge you to follow the tips on the blog.

The most important thing is to follow your child’s lead. Therapists and Social Workers know what works in general and they can provide great guidelines, but only YOU know your child and what they can and can’t take at any point in time. That puts YOU in the middle, managing the balance in a way that minimizes trauma for your little ones while having to share terrible concepts. And, at the end of the day, isn’t what parenting is writ large? Only issue her is that is concentrated to a point of singularity that few people ever have to deal with.

Be strong be you and work from the heart.