Advertisement Gymboree

Family Matters

The Hardest Conversation to Have With Your Child

August 1st, 2013

By: Martin Spinelli

I will never forget the moment it happened to me.  Two police officers tracked me down in the lobby of the hotel I was staying at, as I was getting ready to give a talk at a big international conference.  When they couldn’t look me in the eye I knew something was up.  As they told me that my wife had been killed in a car accident 350 miles away my bag slipped out of my hands and I dropped into the chair behind me.  It was like being kicked in the stomach.

Our four-year-old son Lio had been in the car with her.  He was unconscious in intensive care and the prognoses were dire.  After several weeks, as he regained consciousness and his ability to communicate, his first questions were about his mother, “Where is Mamma?”  “When can we see her?” “Is she OK?”  “Where is Mamma?”  I put it off and made sure the hospital staff knew that I hide the truth for the time being.  I told him that his mother was in another hospital near-by, that she was badly hurt in the accident and wasn’t recovering as well as he was.

But as he put his coma further and further behind him, his questions became more insistent and more desperate.  This meant that it was getting harder for all the nurses to keep their stories straight.  I wanted to hold off longer, not just because of my own fear at the way that scene would unfold, but because I was terrified about causing him an emotional trauma that might derail his recovery. But I knew it had to be done.

 I planned it methodically.  I booked us a little therapy room in the child psychiatry department of the hospital.  I let everyone know when it was going to be happening and to prepare to give us some space afterwards.  Then, casually as I could manage, I rolled Lio in his wheelchair towards the point of no return.

The room contained a wooden dollhouse with toy people in it, stuffed animals, three sturdy chairs and an old leaded window that opened less than two inches. The sun shone in and made little criss-cross patterns on the carpet.  I took him in my arms as we sat in front of the wooden house and played with the people.

“Lio,” I said, carefully laying down a wooden boy with pink freckles and blue shorts.  “I have something to tell you about Mamma.”  Lio stayed focused on building a tower of toy furniture for the toy people.

“It’s something very, very sad and very, very hard.”  He didn’t say anything.

“Lio, Mamma has died.  She died in the accident.”  It didn’t sink in.  He didn’t understand it.  He continued playing as if nothing had been said, as if nothing had happened.

“Lio, I need to tell you that Mamma isn’t here with us anymore.  She’s died.  But her spirit will always be all around us and in our hearts.”  He still didn’t get it, and I considered waiting a few more days or even weeks, but we had come this far and I decided that this had to be it.

“Lio, please listen to me.”  My own voice, calm up until this point, was starting to creak and tremble.  “I’m telling you something very important and very sad.  Your mother has died.  She was killed in the crash.  She’s not on Earth any more but up above the clouds in heaven with Granddad.  But she’ll always be near to us and you’ll always be able to feel her.  She’s looking down on you every day and is so happy that you’re doing so well.”

Then Lio went still.  The toys dropped from his fingers yet his arms remained outstretched in playing position.  And then he started to cry.  He cried and wailed inconsolably and with hardly any breaths between the sobs. He cried for what seemed like 20 minutes and I tried to hold him close but metal frame holding his leg together kept getting the way.  There was nothing I could do to comfort him.  I couldn’t even hold him as he wanted to be held, as I wanted to hold him. My insides turned to ice water.

“I will always be with you,” I said. “I will always be with you, and Mamma will always be in our hearts and in our lives together.”  It was the best I could have done.

There is no “right” way to tell your child that their mother or father has died. There is no formula.  But you will find a way, a way that works for you and for your child.  This is what I learned about having this hardest conversation from my own experience:

•  Trust your instincts.  You have them for a reason and they generally serve you well.

•  Separate your own trauma and grief from your child’s.  This is desperately hard because it’s impossible not to identify with what they’re going through, you have, after all, lost the same person.  But your losses and how you relate to them are going to be different.  Children, especially young children, process the death of a loved one differently from adults.  They can lack an appreciation of its permanence and can continue to ask for the missing parent months or years after the fact.

•  Routines and familiar things can help.  Often adults (myself included) feel the need to put some distance between themselves and the pain of the loss by doing new things—taking a year sabbatical to travel to some new corner of the world (to forget); moving house or neighbourhood or province (to forget); finding a new vacation spot (to forget).  But your child might not be ready to forget.  Even in normal circumstances children tend to like the familiar, during periods of stress and crisis this craving for the usual routines and comforts can have a real roll to play.  Judging when the whole family needs change is the real trick.

•  Look after yourself and conserve your strength.  You may have to remind yourself from time to time that your child isn’t the only one suffering.  This is also hard advice to take, and I flatly rejected it myself for months and months, but you do have to balance your own needs.  In order for your child to come through this in the best way possible, you have to stay strong for the long haul.  This is a marathon, not a sprint.

•  Be flexible.  Your child’s needs are going to evolve and grow as they do.  This means you’re going to have to adapt and be elastic.  Even six years after he lost his mother, my son goes through different phases of drawing pictures, wanting to look at photos of his mother, wanting to talk about her with other people and then long stretches where these things never happen.  Ways of coping that you put in place for the more intense times can be counter-productive and even upsetting when the need has passed.

• Find joy and take heart where you can.  It may not seem like now, but opportunities for this do exist.  There are plenty of studies that suggest that children who lose a parent through death do much better emotionally and developmentally than those who lose a parent through abandonment or a particularly nasty separation.

When you break the terrible news to your child, the relationship you have with them will change forever.  This may sound frightening, but in my case, and in the case of many other parents I’ve spoken with who have found themselves in this situation, the bond you have with your child can strengthen and deepen tremendously.  The love between you can grow as you move through the tragedy together.  It’s uncomfortable and difficult for me to write this, but had Lio’s mother not passed away we would not have the relationship that we have today.  There is an uncommonly strong connection between us—very few fathers and sons on the planet are as close as Lio and I are.  I’m grateful for this every day.

Martin Spinelli is a writer, radio producer and professor. His bestselling book After the Crash tells the story of his son’s miraculous recovery and his own personal transformation. Find him online at

Leave a comment:

Share This Page


Stay Connected

Advertisement ICS

Things to do…