Does whispering a family member’s death to a child help them understand death?


Death in the black communities remains a taboo, but this does not help children’s ability to know and navigate death and grief

Death is one of the most difficult inevitabilities of life. Having to move on with your life in the absence of someone that meant the world to you is challenging.

Adults understand the complexities of death and grief. Even with this understanding, we sometimes crumble at the face of this reality.

What then for children? How do you look a child in the eye and tell them they will never see their mother or father again?

In the black African culture, adults are supposed to whisper a death to a child in his sleep. Parents are advised to never tell them while they are awake.

It is believed that once they have been told, even in their sleep, they will never ask again.

Times have changed and we have acquired a new work of knowledge, particularly in the psychology space. Now, old ways of doing things are being challenged and more questions regarding old practices are being asked.

Even so, many black parents are still following this practice because it is all they know. They never had open and honest conversations about death, and therefore do not know how to navigate these conversations with their children.

Today, psychology teaches us when it comes to child-rearing, honesty is the best policy. Whether it be discussing death, or where babies come from, we need to tell children the truth when they ask questions.

According to child Psychologist Benedict Mhlongo, the trauma of death is a norm across all demographics. It does, however, become blurry for some demographics when it is not dealt with directly.

When traumatic experiences are not dealt with, they translate into dire implications for the child. According to Mhlongo, “The implications thereafter are presented as tantrums, outbursts and possibly anger issues later in adolescence stages”.

The belief with whispering is that children will never ask about the person that has passed away, but the truth is that they do. Black parents just either distract the child or tell them their loved one has gone away.

Children then stop asking because they can see that no one is open to discussing this openly with them.

Young children can understand things better through play therapy. In Mhlongo’s practice, he uses play therapy to unpack the idea of death with both the parents and the child. Mhlongo would use the analogy of angels through dolls or have the child watch The Lion King and have a mini discussion around that.

Play therapy can also have either positive or negative impacts. The trauma will not be the same as children receive things differently. This is mostly because “meaning in young children is a complex phenomenon” according to Mhlongo.

Not everyone can afford therapy, but parents can also start learning child appropriate ways of discussing death with children without taking the easy way out.

For more information around this topic and other child-rearing difficulties, parents may contact Mhlongo on 079 318 9672 or visit his private practice in Cedar Square Shopping Center in Fourways.

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