In Donna Schuurman's book, Never the Same: Coming to Terms with the Death of a Parent, she lists and describes ten needs of grieving children. The second need is "honest, clear information."
Needs of Grieving Children: Honest, Clear Information from Never the Same: Coming to Terms with the Death of a Parent
by Donna Schuurman
It seems so logical that parents and adults should be honest with children, and yet, when it comes to talking about death, there's often a genuine hesitancy to do so. I've come to believe there are four main reasons why adults lie or withhold information from children following a death. All are well-intentioned efforts to do the right thing; all are ultimately unproductive for children. One reason is that their own fear, grief, disbelief, and other thoughts and feelings interfere. If I, as a parent, can't understand why my husband died in a car wreck, by suicide, or was stricken with cancer, how can I possibly explain it to my children? Even though death is the universal experience - 100 percent of us will die - we generally believe it is best when someone has lived a full life into their eighties or nineties and drifts off painlessly in their sleep. When children are "robbed" of a parent in the prime of life, it feels unfair, unnatural, and we are unprepared for it. It challenges our beliefs, blindsides our faith, and crumbles our dreams.
A second reason is that as adults we naturally want to protect children from pain. A couple of weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, I was meeting with groups of parents who worked for a company displaced in the wake of the World Trade Center's collapse. A father shared with me that his nine-year-old daughter, since September 12, had been throwing up and not wanting to go to sleep, but that he couldn't really associate it with the events of the eleventh because she didn't know about what had happened. He "assumed" she didn't know because they didn't have a television. This was a bright, educated man. I asked if his daughter had been to school since the eleventh and he said yes. When I said, "They're talking about it in school," he replied quietly, "I was hoping they weren't." Imagine the fear and confusion this little girl must have been experiencing with the world outside her home reeling from this huge event, while the conspiracy of silence at home pretended it had not happened. This father's own fear and desire to protect his daughter actually contributed to more pain and confusion for her.
A third reason is that adults often don't know how to talk about death, and especially to children. At The Dougy Center we receive many calls from parents and other adults wanting assistance in knowing how to explain a death to a child. Generally, I ask the person to tell me what happened. When they finish, I usually say "That's what you need to tell your children." Unless the language is too complex for the age of the child, what they tell me is the same thing they can tell their child.
A fourth reason is more subtle, but common. It is very difficult to see someone in pain and not be able to relieve them of that pain. The truth is painful, and we want to spare them, and ourselves, that kind of pain. I've never yet met anyone who was excited and eager to tell a child his father was found dead. At the same time, I have yet to hear a child or teen say they were glad they were lied to about the circumstances of a death.
If you were lied to, or information was withheld from you after your parent's death, you may be carrying some anger and resentment about that. You may have information you still wonder about, and still don't know. It's not too late to find out. And in most cases, adults who lied to you or withheld the truth probably did so because they didn't know any better at the time.
*Donna Schuurman is the Executive Director of The Dougy Center, a children's grief support program in Portland, Oregon and the source of excellent resources on grief and loss.