- - Tuesday, September 25, 2012

How do you break the news to your little ones?

Not even a full week after the National Zoo’s baby panda cub was born — weighing no more than a stick of butter and squealing playfully and healthily in its first days on Earth — the little critter passed away, leaving in its wake a sea of grieving young children saddened and confused by the loss.

Zookeepers knew something was wrong Sunday. The mother panda, Mei Xiang, had been seen in previous days holding and cradling the cub when it was crying — all natural motherly behaviors. But on Sunday, she cried out in distress in an alarming way. Rushing over to the mother and her cub, the keepers found the baby panda not breathing.

They tried to bring the cub back to life, but it was too late. The cause of death is unclear, but the panda apparently had problems with its liver.

The cub — which appeared to be female — had just started to develop the black and white spots that characterize pandas. At birth, pandas have pink fur.

The tragedy of the death is compounded by the fact that pandas are a nearly extinct species. Only 1,600 exist in the wild, with 300 more in zoos. Mei Xiang and father panda Tian Tian have only had one other child. Given their fertility history and age, they are not likely to have any more. The birth of baby panda was, therefore, a truly special event.

For many children 3 to 7 years old excited by the cub’s birth and by the prospect of seeing it at the zoo, the concept of death is confusing if not altogether unfamiliar.

In a video posted on YouTube about how parents should talk to children about the death of a pet, child psychologist Craig Childress, based in Pasadena, Calif., notes that a child of 3 to 5 does not have a very robust conception of death and dying, while an older child, age 7 to 12, will have a better understanding of death and also a stronger connection to the animal that died.

With the panda baby’s death, parents of young children eagerly awaiting the new addition may now be facing a rather difficult conversation with those children — one they probably were saving for when the children were a little older.

How should parents handle such a talk? Should they tell the children the straight truth? Should they use the death of a baby panda as a springboard for a larger discussion of death and mortality? Should they get into the importance of the mother-child bond, given the mama panda’s touching grief? Should they change the subject? Like the sex talk, another thorny issue for parents, a conversation about mortality may be best reserved for adolescence.

Many parents may be tempted to euphemize the death — telling their children that baby panda is just asleep.

Child development psychologists and spiritual leaders agree that being direct and honest is the best way to go.

Euphemisms, specifically, are a bad idea, Mr. Childress says. Explaining the death away by saying that baby panda “is asleep” will only confuse children and may even scare them. Children go to sleep every night, after all. Does that mean that they will die, too?

“Use the word death, dying,” Mr. Childress says, but do so in a calm and matter-of-fact way. “The parental emotional tone should communicate that everything is OK,” Mr. Childress says.

Psychologist Linda Blair, author of “The Happy Child,” agrees. Honesty and simplicity are the best policies in cases like this, and she offers some ground rules for talking to children about the baby panda’s death.

First, be honest. Tell the children truthfully that the cub died. Second, answer their questions and only their questions — there is no need to delve into side issues, like the mother-child bond or the nature of mortality. Children, Ms. Blair says, may become needlessly frightened if they are inundated with too much information.

Finally, be positive when you honestly can.

“I would not advise to then go on to anthropomorphize mommy panda,” she says. “Wait. Then follow your child’s need for understanding at that time.” The child needs time to absorb the information, at which point he can return to Mom and Dad with additional questions.

Children will also respond to the situation based on how their parents are responding to it, a process called “social referencing,” Mr. Childress says. Though it is difficult for parents to see their children sad, if they try to deny the child that very natural emotion in the context of death, then the child will think that feeling sad is a negative rather than natural phenomenon. A child should be allowed to feel sad, but in a secure environment — safe in the knowledge that life goes on and that Mom and Dad love them.

Denying the reality of death is, therefore, a bad strategy. Death is part of nature’s unending cycle. “Nature teaches by example,” says the Rev. George Rutler, a Catholic religious leader in New York City.

“We should not deny the fact of death, for it is part of the natural order that gives life,” Father Rutler counsels. The death of baby panda is an opportunity for young children to increase their gratitude for life, he says.

Changing the subject or diminishing the gravity of the death would be unwise, according to Father Rutler, because the grieving process is healthy.

“It would be worse than sad if we were not sad. … Grief is the price we pay for love,” he says.

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