Taraji P. Henson has talked before about the fact that her ex-boyfriend and the father of her son Marcell was murdered when the boy was 9. She’s bringing up this tragic story again in the hopes of helping others who have to share difficult news about death with their children. In a new episode of her Facebook Watch series Peace of Mind, the Hidden Figures star admits that she initially lied to her son about his father’s death.
“My son’s father was suddenly taken, murdered, when he was 9, and I didn’t know how to tell him that,” Henson said in an excerpt of Wednesday’s episode. “I couldn’t tell him he was murdered, so I told him he died in an accident.”
In 2003, Marcell’s father, William Johnson, had reportedly accused his neighbors of slashing his friend’s tires when the couple hit him on the head with a lamp and then stabbed him multiple times. These are not details anyone wants to reveal to a young child about anyone, let alone their father.
“And I didn’t know how to tell him he was stabbed to death,” Henson tearfully told her co-hosts, therapist Sierra Hilsman and meditation teacher Tracie Jade Jenkins “And I just didn’t have the words. I didn’t know how to tell a 9-year-old.”
When Marcell discovered the truth, he was upset about his mother’s lie. “Later on in life, he found out and he came back to me and was like, ‘Why didn’t you tell me my daddy was murdered?’ And so then we had to get therapy,” Henson said.
So what should she have done in this situation? A version of the truth would have been better than an outright lie, Hilsman told her.
“I would definitely say use age-appropriate language, explaining sometimes there are situations where people do evil things to other people,” she said. “In this situation, somebody killed your father.”
“Age-appropriate” appears to be the key phrase here. Experts have told us that parents shouldn’t shield children from the fact of death. Instead we need to model appropriate reactions to tragedy, even if that means showing them how sad and upset we are. By being honest with them, we help them to know that they can come to us when they’re having a hard time.
“Let your child’s questions guide you as to how much information is needed or desired, taking care to truly listen to those questions and maintain kind, gentle eye contact during discussions,” clinical psychologist Dr. Carla Marie Manly told SheKnows. “Your child may fear that you will die soon and they will then be left alone. Let your child know that they are safe and loved. These are every child’s top needs.”
These famous parents have shown us how to have tough conversations about race with their kids.