Talking “with” the children (also) about death

by Claudia Ravaldi
Flavia Zuncheddu

When talking to children it is necessary to lower yourself to their height. We adults, perhaps because of the knees that are no longer too elastic, are a little reluctant to lower ourselves to someone else’s height. We get better, it comes spontaneously, to speak “from top to bottom”. With children no. With children “top down” doesn’t work. And if, with these children, we want to talk about death, then in order not to make a bad impression it is necessary to lower ourselves to their height.

So oil your knees .

Exposing yourself to questions as sharp as blades. To inquiring gazes. With explosions of words. Or of silences. Or sobbing. Or sudden and sudden stomach-head-neck pains. Or revealing drawings.

To dedications, full of love.

To gigantic whys, which fill us with ancestral anxieties, because the answer to those whys we are not given to know and there the donkeys fall (we fall donkeys , it would be better to say).

Oiling the knees is a therapeutic act for us adults, committed as parents, as therapists, doctors, pedagogues, teachers, to participate in the growth of children, ours and others. Oiling the knees is the initial and final act of paths due to the professional (or family) role we have.

Oiling one’s knees today, and placing oneself with trust, respect and gratitude at the height of children hungry for questions and certain uncertainties, in an age where everything is fast, everything easy, all manual and oriented towards the solution of the problem, is very important, especially when there is no solution to the problem in question.

“But I wanted a sister. Why am I the only one in the whole class without a sister?”

“Why did your brother die? But will he come back?”

Let’s oil our knees and then let’s listen:

About our children , bereaved children and siblings, and their reactions to loss. Children teach us a lot if we tune in to their height.

Of ourselves , the grieving parents, and of that hot cauldron of pain that overwhelmed us and at the same time of the eagerness that many have had to protect our big brothers first.

Protect them from pain, save them, from pain, transform death, the fact, into something more flexible and malleable.

“I immediately thought that I wanted to go and pick up L. from school. I couldn’t bear it if he knew from someone else about M.’s death.”

The same craving can take an equal and opposite form: keeping our children out of pain, avoiding meeting them, avoiding meeting their inquiring and revealing gazes.

“I told my mother to say we were out for a sudden congress in Rome. I could not have faced a birth and even the pain of my grown son.”

Of those who went through it before us . In the historic CiaoLapo forum there is a space for reflection dedicated to this aspect of the communication of mourning with children. Because sharing in a protected environment is better than going crazy alone. (with the undoubted advantage that there is also the risk of remaining lucid for how lucid one can be when one has just suffered a bereavement).

Of reliable authoritative sources . The more we are in difficulty, the more our autopilot pushes us to rely on the first who passes by and who seems “sufficiently” prepared (it is typical, for example, to think that the pediatrician, that is the doctor who treats the diseases of children, also knows about mourning, and therefore has all the answers to our questions: it is a pity that the degree in medicine is not the degree in “things of life” and therefore the pediatrician, who is perhaps an excellent infectious disease specialist and fine diagnostician, can have his personal pathologies on death, like all of us, and therefore may not be an authoritative figure to talk about the psychology of bereavement in childhood).

The more we are in difficulty, the more our critical ability to make choices and decisions shrinks: we do not know, but the more we are in difficulty, the more a part of us is looking for an “easy remedy” to alleviate the difficulty. The principle of delegation is triggered, which makes sense as long as we know to whom we are delegating an important step in our life. The dangers of improvised experts are well known and documented, especially online. The network offers us recipes of all kinds. Mourning is a taboo. The education of children is a fashionable topic. (Everyone, absolutely everyone, loves to tell us what we should do as aspiring good parents.) What to say to a bereaved child is a frequent topic of discussion online. (Off the net, the stampede, but we’ll cover this in another post). We read everything, the opposite of everything, and the opposite of the opposite of everything. As if to say, it is a matter of discussion and it could not be otherwise, because the topic is very hot. For many years we have tried to give life to a public reflection on bereavement in children together with our developmental psychologist and psychotherapist, Dr. Simona Agosti . Her answers to mothers’ questions can be read here .

CiaoLapo has been involved in mourning education for many years. The reasons why we decided to look after not only the adults directly affected by perinatal loss but also the children directly (siblings, cousins) or indirectly (schoolmates, friends) involved were addressed here .

We have organized training courses, workshops for teachers, workshops for families, workshops for children at some elementary schools.

Together with Cecilia Ginanni, psychologist and psychotherapist, we have also written a reflection for the experts, in this scientific publication, on the most widespread authoritative approaches to perinatal bereavement in siblings.

Thanks to a mother from CiaoLapo, this year we had the opportunity to be present with our story on the school diaries of a large comprehensive school. We oiled our knees to put ourselves at the height of “children and young people” as a school-group, without forgetting their special uniqueness as children and young people, each with their own experience. Getting to this group, bringing our associative history, without speaking from above. Without using words that could crush children already bent by heavy experiences, or oppress children already oppressed by the fear of death.

Use words.

Talk with.

With children, with the right words, with the right times.

Talking about death not only on the occasion of November 2, not only when the grandfather dies, not only because the misfortune has just happened in the classroom and therefore

now the up-to-date neglected argument is no longer.

Talking about death as part of life, with the most privileged interlocutors that exist.

Because tomorrow, as adults, they can have better knees than ours.

From the “diary” of the Comprehensive Institute of Fino Mornasco:

“You will look at the stars, at night. (…) When you look at the sky, at night, since I will live on one of them, since I will laugh at one of them, then it will be for you as if all the stars were laughing. You you alone will have stars who know how to laugh! “

“And when you have consoled yourself (there is always consolation), you will be happy to have met me.

you will always be my friend. You’ll want to laugh with me.

And sometimes you will open the window, like that, for the pleasure …

And your friends will be amazed to see you laugh looking at the sky. “

Antoine de Saint Exupery, The little prince

CiaoLapo is an association founded in 2006 to remember Lapo, who like the Little Prince one day flew to a star, a few hours before he was born.

Every year some Little Princes go to live on the stars barely touching our lives.

In Italy it happens to one child for every 200 births.

CiaoLapo works to help families who lose a child during pregnancy or after birth and to spread health practices that could save at least 600 children every year.

How we work?

In hospitals we work alongside doctors and midwives and support researchers involved in studying perinatal death; we help young people engaged in their degree thesis on this topic e

we work with municipalities to raise awareness every October 15th, for the world day of awareness on perinatal bereavement. We also work in schools with some teachers to reflect on the themes of life, pain and resilience through the works of many writers and illustrators. It is never easy to talk about death: but if nobody talks about it, when it happens, nobody knows what to say or do. The Little Prince, then, can give us a hand.

If you want to know more: surf with an adult on and, or write to

Good life, good school and thanks for your attention,

Claudia Ravaldi, founder and president of CiaoLapo onlus.

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