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What to Tell Your Child When Their Superhero Dies

September 18, 2020 by  
Filed under Uncategorized

By Nina Washington, MD, MPH

On August 29, 2020, the world stood in shock upon learning of the death of celebrated and talented actor, Chadwick Boseman. Boseman, only 43 at the time of his death, succumbed after a 4-year battle with colon cancer – a battle he quietly fought while portraying iconic and historic figures on film. There is no doubt that his most iconic figure was The Black Panther, Marvel Comic Book’s only black superhero.

Image by Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

Image by Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

The news of Chadwick Boseman’s passing meant the King would now be laid to rest.

A few days after Boseman passed, a medical school friend of mine confided that she had not told her son of Boseman’s death. She also feared her son would learn of the Black Panther’s death from a friend or classmate. Without missing a beat, I responded, “That’s why YOU should tell him.”  In that moment, I realized Chadwick Boseman’s death may be many children’s first encounter with mortality.

So how do you tell your child their superhero died?

Be Honest

Children are so much smarter and resilient than what we give them credit for. They are skilled in picking up on context clues and body language. They are also great at eavesdropping and hear a lot of the “adult” conversations taking place around them. For these reasons, it is likely your child already has an inkling that something sad and tragic has occurred. This is your opportunity to tell them the truth. This is your opportunity to begin a discussion it takes many of us a lifetime to become comfortable with having. Talk about the beginning of life – that moment when we are born from the womb. Then gently, yet honestly, inform them that just as being born is natural, dying (or no longer living) is just as natural. This means that even though King T’Challa and the Black Panther’s body and mind are no longer with us, his movies, his spirit, and his memories always will be.

Don’t Refer to Death as Sleep

Many children know that sleep is followed by an awakening. They wake from sleep every morning. They wake from their afternoon nap. To refer to death as sleep implies that their superhero, their loved one, their friend, will soon awaken. Sadly, this is not the case and may lead to more confusion regarding death. Carefully inform your child that death is a permanent event. Depending on your family’s beliefs, this may also be a good time to begin the discussion of how death is understood and perceived by your faith or personal philosophy.

Answer Their Questions

If this is your child’s first experience with death, be prepared for a myriad of questions. Why did this happen? Will I die? Can I still watch *insert superhero’s* movies? Did he do something bad to cause him to die? These questions are reasonable and to be expected. Be honest with your child and answer each of their questions. Set aside a time when you are not rushed and there are no pressing or urgent tasks that require your attention. Be sure to consider your child’s age, maturity level, and temperament when answering their questions While the goal is to always be honest, the conversation should be tailored to their individual characteristics. This may necessitate multiple conversations. Using the Black Panther (i.e., Chadwick Boseman) as an example, this would be a wonderful opportunity to talk about illness – specifically, cancer.

Allow Them to Grieve

Children, like adults, will grieve differently. For some children grieving is wearing their superhero costume all day for the next week. For other children, grieving is watching the superhero’s movies on repeat. Grieving may also manifest as increased clinginess to parental units or family members. Even still, there may be bouts of crying, outbursts, or defiant behavior. Help your child process what they are feeling. Ask how they feel regarding the death of their superhero or loved one. What would make them feel better? Can any of their emotions be redirected? While grief is to be expected after death, there should be an understanding that healing must also occur. Help your child to grieve a little less with each passing day.

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Conversations about death are never easy. However, we owe it to our children to have these difficult discussions. When doing so, being honest, answering questions, and allowing your child time to grieve will hopefully make this painful experience less so for you and your family.

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The information on MommyMDGuides.com is not intended to replace the diagnosis, treatment, and services of a physician. Always consult your physician or child care expert if you have any questions concerning your family's health. For severe or life-threatening conditions, seek immediate medical attention.