The sudden death of basketball legend Kobe Bryant and eight others on a helicopter last Sunday shocked the world. We’ve had days of seeing grown men cry on national television and on the street, mourning his loss. If adults are having difficulty coping, this is even harder for children. Parents may be facing tough questions from their kids about the death of this man they looked up to, or they may be wondering why their teenager is acting moodier (than usual) about the loss of someone they didn’t even know.
The good news is, this is all totally normal. To help us figure out how to help our kids deal with the death of someone they idolized, we turned to Amanda Fialk, PhD, chief of clinical services at The Dorm, a mental health treatment center for teens and young adults in New York and Washington, D.C. Even if your son or daughter has no interest in Kobe or basketball, you can turn to this in the unfortunate (and inevitable) event someone else famous they love dies.
1. Listen and validate
Whether or not you agree that this death is important in the grand scheme of things, this is not the time for you to point that out.
“In some ways, these celebrities, especially for young people who are watching them on YouTube and Instagram and Twitter, are more a part of their day-to-day life than a grandparent in many cases, or even a parent in some cases,” Fialk told SheKnows. That’s why the death of their favorite athlete, musician or actor can feel as devastating as the death of a member of their extended family. This is certainly true for young people who haven’t had anyone else in their lives pass away.
“For many kids, it might be their first experience with some of the overwhelming emotions related to grief,” Fialk explained. “That can be scary, and they need to feel like their feelings are being accepted.”
Your job at this moment is to listen to your kids, reflect with them about what they’re feeling, and reassure them that their feelings are okay to have. This goes for kids of all ages, Fialk said.
2. Understand that grief is different for everyone
“We need to normalize the range of emotions and prepare them for shifts in emotions,” Fialk said of the conversations to have with kids about grief. While you might be familiar with the Five Stages of Grief and can even discuss them with your child, understand that those stages don’t always happen in order. They may skip denial and go straight to anger, for example. They may even be happy one minute and devastated the next.
“You see that a lot with death in the family, where people will feel guilty if they have something that they want to experience happiness about so soon after death,” she said.
Just knowing that all of these emotions are normal will go a long way toward comforting kids. Fialk recommends Modern Loss: Candid Conversation About Grief. Beginners Welcome by Rebecca Soffer and Gabrielle Birkner to help with this.
3. Don’t try to make it go away
Though our impulse as parents is to want to take away our kids’ pain, that’s not necessarily what they need from you right now.
“The last thing that you want to say to somebody who’s grieving is, ‘It’s okay. It’s not that bad. It will get better,’ “ Fialk said. “It’s very invalidating.”
4. Be an emotional role model
When you’re sad, whether it’s about Kobe Bryant, the death of a family member or anything else that hits you hard, don’t hide it from your children. Being “strong” for them doesn’t show them the whole picture.
“What ends up happening when they do that is that kids might feel like they need to be tough, like their parents are,” Fialk said. “But inside they’re feeling misunderstood and alienated.”
5. Bring them out of isolation
We all know how easy it is to get stuck online when a big news event has everyone talking. Social media and news outlets keep us hooked with memorials and constant conversations about what happened, how, why, and what it all means. So, if you’ve got an older kid who seems to be glued to their screen after a celebrity death, that’s not surprising. It’s also okay to do, in moderation.
If their only human interaction is online and they remain isolated in their room, however, you might want to step in.
“Say, ‘I see that you’re reading a lot on Instagram about Kobe. I’d love to hear what you’re reading. Can you tell me some of the things that you’re reading?’ ” Fialk suggests. “Ask those open-ended questions, not yes-or-no questions.”
After discussing what they’re looking at online, you can attempt to help them do something offline. That might mean listening to music, writing about the deceased, or even doing an art project together. She recommends picking up the Angel Catcher for Kids, a journal with activities they can do on their own or with you.
6. Know it’s okay not to have all the answers
Little ones may be prompted by the news of a young celebrity’s death to ask if you’re going to die too. Teenagers may also start to wonder about the deeper questions of mortality and the meaning of life. Even if you happen to be an ordained religious leader, you know there are no easy answers here.
“The good news is that there’s really no right answer,” Fialk said. “You can say, ‘It’s really hard for me to wrap my head around these questions. I wish I had an answer. But I don’t, and I would really love to continue to explore and talk about these things with you.’ “
7. Know the warning signs of something more serious
It’s not uncommon for the death of a public figure to trigger more than just sadness in people who might be prone to depression or anxiety. Fialk said to watch for behavior that’s out of the ordinary, such as withdrawal from social activities and a desire to stay home from school.
“Check in with other adults in their life teachers, with coaches, with mentors and talk to them,” she added, because it helps to get the full picture of their behavior outside of the house.
By being your child’s support system during this loss in their life, you’re not just helping them get through the celebrity news cycle. You’re preparing them for the bigger stuff, even as you hope they won’t have to face true loss for a long, long time.