The sudden death of Miami Marlins ace pitcher Jose Fernandez has left many children and young athletes without a role model and hero, and with many questions about death and dying. These questions can be difficult for parents to answer and often bring up topics we would rather not have to discuss.
When a child loses someone important in his or her life, they go through a grieving process just as adults do. Very young children are concrete thinkers, so parents should be truthful and explain the event and what happened as simply as possible. Avoid terms such as “going to sleep” or “passed away” to avoid confusion. Young children cannot yet understand the permanence of death, so you should be patient when your child asks repeated questions about when they will be able to see the person again or when they will be coming back.
As children get older, they come to understand that death is permanent. This can be scary for them as they consider that death could also affect a parent or sibling. It is important to listen to their questions and fears and encourage them to express their feelings. As young children struggle with these emotions, they might become clingy or act out. You should acknowledge your child’s feelings and not dismiss them or try to correct them.
Older children can understand that death is permanent and will eventually happen to everyone. A sudden death, such as that of Fernandez, could leave them with questions about the meaning of life or what happens after death. Teenagers are often hesitant to talk about their feelings and fears, but it is a good opportunity for parents to have a conversation with them about family beliefs and values.
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Parents should encourage teens to express themselves and avoid judging or belittling their feelings. It might also be helpful to talk about good memories. Looking through pictures, recalling special events involving the person who died, or identifying the particular characteristics of the person that you and your child admired can help everyone cope.
In a high-profile tragedy, the media coverage can be overwhelming for children. Limit exposure to repeated new stories and pictures that could be upsetting to your child. However, the coverage also gives us the chance to see the reaction and tributes of others.
We have watched as Dee Gordon, a teammate of Fernandez, hit an emotional home run as the first at bat when the Marlins returned to the field; as teams around Major League Baseball hung No. 16 jerseys in their dugouts in honor of Fernandez; and as Aledmys Diaz, a close childhood friend of Fernandez, hit a grand slam in honor of his friend after returning from Miami to the St. Louis Cardinals.
Similarly, parents can encourage their children to come up with something special to do to honor Fernandez or a lost loved one. Ideas include writing a special note, traveling to Marlins Park together to leave a memento or displaying a No. 16 on their own uniform or equipment. Helping your child find a positive way to deal with a loss can help avoid negative and sometimes even dangerous or risky behaviors. Parents should also be open about their own feelings, letting their child know that they share many of the same emotions.
Be aware of signs that your child is having a more serious problem dealing with the loss and might benefit from professional help to work through their fears and feelings. Some signs include a loss of interest in activities they enjoy, trouble sleeping, withdrawal from friends or family members, or changes in school performance.
It is important to remember that there are many ways that children deal with grief and loss. Parents should support their children in expressing their feelings and emotions in safe and healthy ways. However, if your child continues to struggle with loss, it is time to seek medical help. Professional counselors and behavioral health experts can guide your family through difficult times.
If you suspect your child is having coping difficulties and needs help, call 305-243-6857.
Carolyn Kienstra, M.D., is a pediatric sports medicine physician at UHealth – the University of Miami Health System. For more information, visit UHealthSystem.com/patients/pediatrics.