On Friday, August 28, the shocking death of actor Chadwick Boseman was revealed to the world. He was only 43 years old, but during his all-too-brief time on earth he created an impressive body of work. Boseman earned the respect of his colleagues, and was a cherished friend and beloved family member. For many people his most memorable role is that of the Marvel superhero Black Panther, and his depiction of King T’Challa has repeatedly been described as the “first time I saw someone that looked like me play a superhero on a movie screen.” This makes Boseman’s death an exceptionally crushing blow. While the cultural impact of such a loss is best left to other writers, this article can give some general guidelines and suggestions on how to discuss the death of an icon to the countless children who will continue to look up to him as a hero and role model.
It is important to remember that for young children the lines between fantasy and reality are typically blurred until around age five. They may believe that what they see on a screen is real. This can also increase the emotional attachments they feel towards fictional characters. It may be confusing for them when we try to explain that the actor is dead, but that the character remains accessible in movies and on television.
Children should be given the emotional space to express their complicated feelings, whatever they may be. They may react as if they have lost an in-real-life friend. They may not react at all. How you support them as they process this information will help set the groundwork for how they cope with death throughout their lives. It is important that we give our children the tools they need to be able to face such difficult and emotional experiences. We can do that by talking with them honestly and in terms they can understand, and empathizing with their grief and confusion. This teaches them that they can face their big feelings and not be afraid, even when it is hard. This is an important skill for anyone, child or adult.
To use an example from the past, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a children’s television show on PBS for over three decades. Fred Rogers was the beloved host who dedicated his life to helping children “grow as confident, competent, and caring human beings.” When he died in 2003 it had a huge impact on his young viewing audience. To help parents and children face the loss together PBS created a guide to assist parents in explaining it to their children. The original resource on the PBS Kids website has since been archived, but a copy of the information was found on a helpful post by writer Ally Henry. The message is still relevant today, and it is a useful tool for parents who wish to guide their children through such a difficult experience.
If Your Child Asks about Fred Rogers’ Death
At the time of Fred Rogers’ death, we understood that parents might be concerned about how to approach the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood series and our Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood web site with their children.
We here at Family Communications gave this a great deal of thought and talked with our colleagues in child development and mental health. We wrote the article below to help adults deal with their feelings and their children’s reactions to his death. Many children might not be aware that Fred Rogers is no longer alive, but others might have questions and may want to talk with you about it. We hope these thoughts will be helpful for you and your family.
Helpful Hints for Parents
One of Fred Rogers’ on-going messages has been, “There’s only one person in the whole world like you.” So we understand that every child and adult will experience this news in his or her own unique way, from their own relationship with him and from their developmental level.
Children experience death differently than adults do. Young children have a limited understanding of death. Some children may cry. Some may seem callous. You may be surprised to find that you’re more upset than your child.
Children have always known Mister Rogers as their “television friend,” and that relationship doesn’t change with his death.
Talking with children about Fred Rogers’ death
You know your child best. It’s up to you to judge how much or how little your child needs to be told — or if your child needs to know at all.
Find out what your child knows, has heard, or imagines. Some children may ask, “Who killed him?” Killings are so prominent in the news that they may naturally become linked to any death.
Ask how your child feels about it. Being able to share our feelings — to say “I’m sad” — or “I’m mad” — helps us know that others feel that way and that our feelings are natural and normal.
Start simply. You may want to say something like, “He was very ill and had to have an operation. The doctors worked very hard to help him, and they did everything they could, but they couldn’t help him.” (If you say only, “He was sick and died,” children may worry that you or they might die, too, when you’re “sick” — with the flu or a cold.)
Children will ask if they want more information. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know.”
Because families are so important to young children, they may want to know that Fred Rogers had a loving and caring family. He had a wife, two sons, both of whom are grown and married, and two grandsons. His family helped to care for him all through his illness.
Some children may express disbelief, saying, “But I just saw him on TV.” You can help them understand that when people die, they don’t come back to life, but Mister Rogers put his programs on videotape so they can be shown over and over again.
It helps children know that it’s okay for children and adults to cry, but we can deal with our feelings and smile again later on. Fred Rogers talked about seeing his father grieving when his own father (Fred’s grandfather) died, and that helped him know that it was okay for men to show their feelings.
Remember that Fred Rogers has always helped children know that feelings are natural and normal, and that happy times and sad times are part of everyone’s life.
Finding comfort in the Neighborhood
Children today have had lots of experience with videos, and they can understand that Mister Rogers made his “television visits” on videotape so that they can be shown over and over. His continuing presence and his acknowledgment of feelings can remain a source of comfort for them.
He also created this web site to give children a chance to play about Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and playing is a healthy and natural way for children to work through their feelings and concerns.
In fact, children’s loss could be more upsetting if the “Neighborhood” program or “Neighborhood” related materials are not available to them. Just as people use photos and videos to remind them of a loved one, a television or website visit can remind them of the gentle man who has meant so much to them. We feel truly fortunate to be able to offer these materials so that children and families can continue to be enriched by Fred Rogers’ messages and presence.
The Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media also has an available resource entitled “WHEN SOMEONE YOUR CHILD LOVES DIES.” It offers specific suggestions of ways to explain death to children in a way they can understand. It also encourages caregivers to remember that “your love and presence is the best thing to help them through this time.”
We are grateful for the legacy of Chadwick Boseman, and mourn the loss of a great actor and kind person. He was a leader and icon, both on-screen and off. Our hearts go out to his loved ones as well as his many grieving fans as they go through this time of sadness.
Morrissett Funeral & Cremation Service
6500 Iron Bridge Rd.
Richmond, VA 23234
(804) 275-7828 email@example.com
Written by Jennifer Roberts Bittner, Certified Celebrant & Life Tribute Specialist