Daughter saw a dead guy
July 28, 2010 5:41 PM   Subscribe

My three-year-old daughter just saw a dead guy. On our way to daycare we discovered a man who had apparently jumped from the top of our apartment building and died. Clearly dead, blue face, blood coming out of ear, but nothing "gory" per se. She only saw him for a second before I turned her away, but it clearly freaked her out a little. I tried to tell her he was just playing, but it's hard to tell what her inner reactions are. I brought her to daycare because I had little choice, and she seemed surprised or confused, like she had seen something she knew was Not Good but had no further understanding of. How can I help her avoid being adversely affected by this?
posted by zachawry to Human Relations (40 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Does the daycare have any type of therapist who works there or who is affiliated with it? As that person. Or ask your pediatrician for referrals.

Someone is going to have to talk to this kid and explain what happened in terms appropriate for her age.
posted by dfriedman at 5:46 PM on July 28, 2010

What I meant to say is, a therapist type person can probably tell you what you should say to your daughter....
posted by dfriedman at 5:47 PM on July 28, 2010


But we don't hide this stuff from our kids, they're aware that people die, we tell the truth (softly of course). Seems to be working so far. My initial approach would be to say that yes he did seem to be dead and that is very sad...

'Adversely affected' is hard to interpret, your definition will be different to any one elses. But shielding people from life ultimately means (I believe) in worse adverse effects later.
posted by wilful at 5:49 PM on July 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I don't believe in hiding death either. I just think that someone who just turned three a couple months ago has no framework for understanding death. Unlike, say, my 5 year-old.

On reflection I shouldn't have said he was just playing, but I was freaked and a little panicked.
posted by zachawry at 5:51 PM on July 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think you should take her to a therapist to help her understand this.
posted by nathancaswell at 5:54 PM on July 28, 2010

I just think that someone who just turned three a couple months ago has no framework for understanding death.

Um, how do you know? Anyway, if you're right that she simply lacks the conceptual framework to understand death at all, then why not tell her about it? Children are constantly exposed to adults talking about things they don't really understand; that itself doesn't seem like a huge problem. As tapesonthefloor hints, maybe the one who's having a harder time dealing with the situation is you.
posted by Jaltcoh at 5:56 PM on July 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I suspect that she'll react more strongly to your reaction than to the actual dead guy. I can vividly recall a few times my dad was deeply upset by something and clearly worried about me seeing it when I was very young. I have no idea what he was actually troubled by. I wasn't scarred for life by any of those things. But I do remember being scared by my dad seeming scared or upset or uncertain. So, that's not to say it's ridiculous to think she might have been scared or upset by the dead guy, but chances are, at three, she doesn't understand death or serious injury nearly as well as she understands her dad's emotional state. I'd tread very carefully, not in terms of denying that anything was wrong, but more in terms of saying, "Do you have any questions about the man who was hurt?" rather than, "Were you really scared by that really scary awful thing that even I, your invincible dad, was scared of?"
posted by Meg_Murry at 5:56 PM on July 28, 2010 [20 favorites]

Response by poster: Unfortunately we live in Japan, where there is approximately 1 therapist per 1 million population.
(Which is probably one cause of the sight we saw this morning.)
posted by zachawry at 5:57 PM on July 28, 2010

Response by poster: "I suspect that she'll react more strongly to your reaction than to the actual dead guy. "

This, probably, is true. Too bad she didn't discover the guy with her mom, who is a doctor and not at all phased by random dead guys. :)
posted by zachawry at 5:58 PM on July 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh dear, what a thing to have happen. Let her lead you. If she asks questions, just answer exactly she asks. Just that he was dead, you don't know hwat happened to him, he's not in pain, his family will be sad, the police and the ambulance will come and make sure to take care of him until his family comes, etc. Tell her there's nothing to be afraid of, there's nothing that can hurt her, etc. I don't think at his point she needs a therapist - it's only been a few hours and we don't know how she's processing it. If she's still rattled by it in a few days or a week, take her to her own doctor.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 6:00 PM on July 28, 2010 [21 favorites]

God, I can't proof read my own work.......
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 6:01 PM on July 28, 2010

Seconding ThatCandianGirl - for an isolated incident of several seconds' duration in which no one was harmed, I don't know if therapy is necessary. What she COULD benefit from is reassurance that mom/dad are big, strong, warm bulwarks of safety and reassurance. Even tiny kids suspect that parents don't have ALL the answers, but it's nice to keep them believing - for as long as you can, anyway - that mom and dad WILL take care of things (no matter what "things" happens to entail).

I'd sit down with her, explain what she saw in terms that are appropriate for her age level, ask her if she has any questions, ask her what she's thinking and feeling about it. I'd let her know that mom and dad will always be there to keep her safe, and that they keep THEMSELVES safe, too. And hug her lots - I'm sorry you guys had to experience this.
posted by julthumbscrew at 6:04 PM on July 28, 2010

she seemed surprised or confused

That's the default state for three year olds. I think you're (understandably) making a big deal out of something that's likely quite insignificant to your daughter.

Look at it this way: you're horrified because you understand the concept of death, and some of the motivations that led this guy to jump. You saw something terrible.

On the other hand, your daughter is too young to understand the situation. She saw something unpleasant and confusing that lasted for only a second or two. She's probably forgotten about it already.

I think that therapy is complete overkill. If your daughter asks, by all means be honest but don't make this into a huge deal.
posted by ripley_ at 6:06 PM on July 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

If she brings it up directly or indirectly ( mom and I saw a funny guy playing, what was that guy playing) I would use that as an opportunity to tell her the simple truth--a man fell from a building, he was not playing and he was hurt very very bad. If she asks why you said he was playing--tell her the truth--you were surprised/shocked/etc and did not now exactly what to say. If she asks if he will get better say no. Answer each question very simply, with no excessive explanation. If she has had no direct experience of death--I doubt if she will be able to incorporate it as a concept. This is where you have to use your own beliefs or a very simple generic explanation. Actually, I do not know what I would say. Never had to discuss it with some one that young. Always had a grandparent/pet/neighbor or someone to use as an example.
I do not think this warrants any special intervention unless she begins to dwell on it or you notice a change in her behavior that persists for a week or two--sleeping habits, eating, socialization, persistent irritability, etc. This was probably more traumatic for you than her. As one of the posters said--are you all right.
posted by rmhsinc at 6:08 PM on July 28, 2010

.....Seeing a dead person is HONESTLY not going to emotionally scar your daughter. You love her and want to protect her, but death is a part of the human experience. Imagine how many little kids have been to funerals. My grandfather passed away last year and visiting his open casket was a real learning experience for my 6 year old, my 4 year old, and my 2 year old. I'm not saying this to be a jerk, but to give you a little perspective.

If she brings it up, have an HONEST conversation in the best way you know how.
posted by allthewhile at 6:10 PM on July 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

In my experience when something bad happens to kids that age, they want reassurance that it will not happen again, that this is not what the world is like all the time. You may get questions like, "will there not be a man lying on the sidewalk?" especially when going by that spot. The main thing is to repeat the answer when she asks that, and as CanadianGirl says to answer any other questions truthfully, and perhaps to probe a little for questions as Meg Murry suggests.
posted by beagle at 6:12 PM on July 28, 2010

you're horrified because you understand the concept of death, and some of the motivations that led this guy to jump. You saw something terrible.

Popping back in to say this is absolutely true, and that my earlier comment was not meant, in any way, to say that you should bottle up your feelings. On the contrary: take care of yourself and take time to sort out and process whatever you're feeling about what you saw, both for your own well-being and for your daughter's.
posted by Meg_Murry at 6:13 PM on July 28, 2010

Don't take her to a therapist. There's no better way to make her feel that it was a huge deal and something that she should think about constantly than making it a huge deal and something she is asked to think about constantly. Kids are resilient. For all you know, she's already forgotten about it. You could ask her if she remembers the man who was sleeping on the sidewalk earlier in the day? Did she have any questions about it? If not, then there's no need to delve into it, just let her know she can always ask questions. If she asks why he was sleeping like that, or whatever, explain death in whatever way you think best - that it's like going to sleep, the deepest, most restful sleep you've ever had, but you don't wake up from it. That everything that lives has to eventually die, and it's sad when something does, but it nothing she has to worry about...you know, whatever you think best. Just don't take her to therapy, for the love of god. Like we can't get through life without a therapist.
posted by Dasein at 6:13 PM on July 28, 2010 [17 favorites]

Is it a Japanese daycare for Japanese kids?

Whatever the case, like dfriedman said, I'd ask the daycare staff what they recommend you do in this situation. Take their advice with a grain of salt, of course. Some of the advice Japanese daycare staff gave friends of mine, Japanese and otherwise, was insulting and unhelpful. But in your situation, it can't hurt to ask for pointers. Suicides like this aren't uncommon in Japan today, and as shocking as it is, I doubt this is the first time they've had a young child in their care encounter a dead body.

I am very sorry you have to deal with this.
posted by vincele at 6:19 PM on July 28, 2010

I think in large part she'll take her cue from you. So you might need to settle this with yourself before you talk to her about it.

I remember when I was a little kid (probably 3-5) some incidents when, like Meg_Murry, I was far more frightened by my father's reaction than I was by the thing that had happened. I didn't understand the thing that had happened, and most likely your daughter too has only the loosest grasp. For all she knows, he tripped in a weird way that can happen to adults.

I am touched that you have framed this as concern for your daughter. You are a great dad. But dads sometimes get upset by things, too. I'll echo tapesonthefloor and ask, are you okay? You mention that your wife is accustomed to the sight of death, but I should hope that you still feel you can reach out to her in a meaningful fashion. In other words, that she won't just brush off your reaction.

Do you have other friends and family you can talk to? Even just a call to a best friend can help anchor you, without needing to talk about The Incident directly.
posted by ErikaB at 6:27 PM on July 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think it's the context of the incident that makes it difficult. It was a dead body in the street, which I've never seen in my life in Pennsylvania. I've only seen dead people in caskets in funeral homes or by a loved ones side when they passed, which have been calm, quiet times - not shocking surprises.

Walking down the street and seeing a dead body lying there is pretty different and much more difficult to explain to a child than the passing of a loved one.

Honestly, if she just turned three, I'd stick with your story that it was someone play acting, they were making a video and leave it at that. She's just a child and doesn't need to know more than that right now.
posted by NoraCharles at 6:27 PM on July 28, 2010

You discuss death with a three year old if her grandfather has died and you want her to understand. Her introduction to death should NOT be a man who has met a violent, bloody death.

Hopefully she accepted your explanation. If she asks and seems disturbed by what she has seen, get some advice from a therapist. Otherwise, I'd leave the discussion of death for a less traumatic time.
posted by ScotsLament at 6:28 PM on July 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

I don't think your daughter needs therapy. It was just a brief moment and she has no emotional or social context with which to link the image (which she might no longer even have in her mind) with what death really is. She's not going to react to this the way you are.

Just a few months ago, I had to tell my 3 year old daughter when our dog died [thank you AskMeFi]. She did not make a tangible connection about the permanence or gravity of the situation, or really anything you and I would consider relevant.

I wouldn't bring it up unless she does. If she does, you can tell her that he had an accident and died. If she inquires more, I'd tell her that doctors, police, or whoever she might have seen, tried to help him but they couldn't make him better. That's pretty much what we told our daughter about our dog.

I would also stress, as others have said, that she will react to the way you react. My daughter mimicked my reaction to our dog's death; she sniffled and said she was sad. At times her behavior was genuine, but other times it was definitely pure imitation.
posted by ellenaim at 6:30 PM on July 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

Here is my experience for something similar that happened when I was young:
When I was 4 my dad, one of our elder neighbors, and I got on the elevator to go down to ground floor. Along the way he started making funny faces and I started giggling. Then he grabbed his chest and slouched to the ground I started laughing. My dad told be to be quite and he started doing CPR since he was no longer talking. When the elevator stopped he ran to the front desk of apartment building to call the ambulance. When I tell people they usually say "Oh my god!" that must have been horrific to see, but the only thing I can remember was that it was really weird day. I forgot about the incident and asked my dad years latter and it turned out he died of a heart attack in the ambulance. FYI, my dad is a doctor and stays pretty calm in these sorts of situations, which is probably the thing that had the most impact on me as an adult.
Just as an aside from the tone of your question it sounds like you want to do this by yourself, but you should remember to include your wife in the conversation about death with your child.
posted by roguewraith at 6:32 PM on July 28, 2010

Rather unbelievably, this also happened to us - same thing, walking my youngest sister to daycare at around 3, and a guy jumped off the roof of a building on Broadway right there on the street.

For what it's worth, she has no memory of this incident at all and was not traumatised by it in any long term way, although she did talk about for a few weeks. We just affirmed what she told us - yes the man fell off the roof, yes he was dead, yes it was sad, yes there was blood, yes it was scary but it's OK to be scared sometimes and everything is all OK now.

There were some books in particularly heavy rotation at the time, but this was 25 years ago and I can't remember what they were. There are now so many more children's books on this topic, I'm sure Amazon can help you out. I'm sorry I can't offer anything more concrete, except the fact that children have an enormous capacity to absorb and normalise experiences, and my sister had no lasting effects from this.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:33 PM on July 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

If therapy is hard to come by, get your pediatrician's advice on how to handle this situation. They're not just medical experts, they're also experts in childhood development, and doctors do train for this stuff.

Hope you're ok - seeing something like this can be hard to digest for grownups, too.
posted by deadmessenger at 6:34 PM on July 28, 2010

I have no idea if this is even remotely helpful, but about a month ago, a bird flew into the window of the house we were staying in on vacation and died on the patio as my three-year-old daughter watched. She was pretty bewildered, and asked me what happened. I told her "That bird flew very very hard into the window and hit its head, and it got a big, big, very big owie -- such a big owie that it isn't alive any more."

She asked a couple questions about what such a big owie would be like ("Is this owie on my knee big enough to make me be not alive any more?"), and in general seemed to be really impressed and sobered by the idea of an owie big enough to make you not be alive any more, but pretty much accepted that This is a Thing that Happens Sometimes and doesn't appear to be too messed up about it. That was a bird, not a human being, but maybe the framing would still work.
posted by KathrynT at 6:37 PM on July 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

My son and I experienced something similar--a bad car accident that occurred directly in front of us as we were about to cross the street. In our case it was quite violent, and the (dead) man in the car was less of the focus than the smashing of the cars into each other. At any rate, I found that afterward, my son wanted to act it out, in all different ways. He wanted to smash his toy cars into each other, and then he wanted to be the man who was on the ground, unconscious, and I played the person who came running to help. Then we played hospital, and I was the doctor who helped the man.

He didn't seem to have any capacity to ask, at the time, if the man was dead or not; he was concerned about his being hurt, and we talked about who the people were who were coming to help, etc. So perhaps, if your daughter brings it up, you can talk about what happens to people when they're in trouble or they're hurt (glossing over the fact that this particular man could not, tragically, get the help he needed).

I don't think at the age of 3 that a therapist would be damaging or send the wrong message, but I also don't think it's necessary. Take your cues from your daughter. Be open to her questions, play with her, draw, see where she goes with it. My son is now 8 and hasn't talked about the accident he saw in years and years.

Also, take care of yourself. Watch out for sleep disturbances, accelerated heart rate, anxiety. Sometimes PTSD can be triggered from events like these, and it can take a while. Take care.
posted by brooklynlady at 6:41 PM on July 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

As others have said above, first put the oxygen mask on yourself... I'm sorry you both had to witness this, it sounds terrifying. It probably wouldn't hurt to get the advice of a child therapist. It's also okay to admit to your daughter, even after the fact, that seeing the dead man scared you too.
posted by Wuggie Norple at 6:55 PM on July 28, 2010

I am so very sorry that you and your daughter had to witness what you did. Please make sure that *you* are OK, however you decide to do that.

I agree with the other posters about your daughter - she is very much going to take her cues from you, and how you answer any questions she may have. Don't be gory or graphic; she probably doesn't need to know that the man jumped off of the roof of a building or why he might have done such a desperate thing. If she asks, I'd tell her that yes, the man was dead, and it was sad, or however you want to frame it. Don't lie to her - three-year-olds can tell when their parents are lying, at least mine could/can, especially when it's something upsetting to you, and it doesn't help. If she seems agitated or shows signs of bigger upset, definitely see her doc. And be prepared for the situation to come up randomly for weeks, if not months. My now seven-year-old daughter will suddenly start talking about our friends' child who died last fall, even though my daughter had only met her once. It can be startling, but roll with it. That's how they process things.

My daughter was probably about the same age as yours when we first started talking with her about death and dying. I don't even know how it came up; probably when one of my husband's myriad fish died and she saw him scooping it out. You should decide how you want to talk with your kids about death, in general, so you have some framework. In our case, since I believe in an afterlife, we talk about that. Yes, even for fish at that point. If that's not your belief, now's a good time to figure out what you want to say when the questions come, because they will.

Again, please do take care of yourself as well as your daughter.
posted by Lulu's Pink Converse at 7:19 PM on July 28, 2010

This is entirely too late to do any good, but take from it what you can. I was raised in constant contact with dogs. Puppies everywhere. Occasionally stillborn. Parents explained it as best they could, I suppose, because I have always been unimpressed by death. I'll guess that those of us raised in circumstances in which death occurs frequently, as on a farm, for example, are more likely to take it at face value. I'm not recommending a tour of the local morgue, but use your imagination.
posted by girdyerloins at 7:23 PM on July 28, 2010

Nthing that she's going to take her cues from you, and your fear is more upsetting and memorable than the weird thing that she saw. I don't think that marching her straight to therapy is absolutely necessary.

If she asks about it or is clearly working through it through play/drawings/behavior, then you can explain it very simply -- lots of good scripts provided above.

On reflection I shouldn't have said he was just playing, but I was freaked and a little panicked.

Don't beat yourself up. If your daughter brings this up, treat it as an opportunity to explain your reaction. "I was scared and shocked and didn't know what to say, but I'll answer any of your questions, I promise."
posted by desuetude at 7:31 PM on July 28, 2010

She does not get it like you do; even if you are freaked out about it, that's what she'll remember, in all likelihood - "Daddy, are you okay?" and so forth. There's a 3-year-old here in the US whose brother died after a beating and drug overdose (the mom's a prominent Mommy blogger) who saw her brother in the hospital, went to the funeral, had death explained, and still wants to know when her mom will be bringing him back. This is because she is a toddler and that's how they think. At most your daughter will want to play lying down near buildings or something; deflect this with alternate activities after a moment or two, like you would if she wanted to play a CD for the fourth consecutive time.

I nth that you make sure you're fine and then reassure her of that fact. Freaking out is to be avoided if possible.
posted by SMPA at 7:37 PM on July 28, 2010

Oddly enough I think children handle this sort of thing better than adults-I as a child walked into a room where my grandmother was unexpectedly dead, in bed.

I would follow the child's lead; if she acts troubled that's one thing, but if she is playing normally, acting normally, etc. I would try not to worry about it too much.

And a million times this: She will take her cues from YOU. And honestly, that's a rough thing for a grownup to see. So be gentle with yourself and find someone for YOU to talk to, if you need to.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:51 PM on July 28, 2010

To my nephew who's three, it's really important that circles be completed, if you will. Like, he wanted to throw away some trash at the park, his parents told him they'd toss it at home, and going home he became progressively more upset. When they realized it, they took him back and let him toss his juice box in the can in question.

In this case, what I would do with my nephew would be to say, "Do you remember this morning, when I was upset?", explain in terms a kid can understand, and make sure he understands by asking if it makes sense. That way the earlier anxiety is resolved and it opens things up for asking questions later.
posted by lhall at 8:30 PM on July 28, 2010

Since your wife wasn't there, and isn't freaked out by death generally, you should let her talk to your daughter if your daughter asks, at least until you've come to terms with it. And do talk to your wife yourself to come to terms with it.
posted by davejay at 9:32 PM on July 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I saw a dead body when I was just slightly older than your daughter. I don't remember being freaked out by it. The man had been run over by a car. I have a pretty vivid memory of the event (the event being the body, I did not witness the man being run over) but it was all very nonchalant. I clearly remember thinking, "I wonder how he can hold his knees up like that even though he's dead. Seems like his knees would fall to one side." He was laying on his back with his knees bent and his feet on the ground. The person I was with was very no-drama about it so that may have been why I didn't think it was that big of a deal. I really wouldn't worry about your daughter. If she starts acting very fearful, has trouble sleeping, etc then I'd ask her about it. Otherwise I wouldn't worry about it. If she asks you about it, be honest with your answers. I remember I asked several questions and was answered honestly so I didn't feel like I should be ashamed of what I had witnessed. She'll be fine :)
posted by GlowWyrm at 11:07 PM on July 28, 2010

I think your daughter will let you know, either verbally or not, how much of an impact this made on her when you go by the spot it happened.

If she shows signs of being upset at all, I suggest having some talks about it. In these talks I feel you should emphasize two points over and over again: mommy and daddy would never do anything like that man did, and nothing like that could ever, ever happen to a little girl.
posted by jamjam at 11:54 PM on July 28, 2010

For what it's worth: we were living in a poor community in Bolivia when my son was 3, a place where life continues to be--for some--nasty, brutish, and short. He saw 2 dead bodies during that time--we attended the rustic, in-home wake for a playmate who died of an unknown illness (possibly rabies), and he witnessed a man from the neighborhood commit suicide by throwing himself under the wheels of a truck. I didn't make any special effort to talk to him about these things. He's 15 now, and does not remember either event. He was much more traumatized by the pigs who roamed the streets.

IMHO, this will only be a big deal to her if you make it into one.
posted by drlith at 5:48 AM on July 29, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for everyone who chipped in. At the end of the day, she has been pretty clingy and needy, but that's about it. One time an ambulance went by, and she asked if "that guy was in it." So, she didn't buy my bit about him playing, which is just as well. I have no interest in raising dupes for children. ;)

One specialist I know gave me some good advice: ask her about it in a casual way, and help her come to some kind of understanding that makes sense for her, rather than trying to explain objectively what happened.

And, I'm fine, too, after being pretty startled. Coming to grips with death is all well and good; I just don't expect it to stare me in the face, literally, while I'm waiting for the elevator in the morning.
posted by zachawry at 6:22 AM on July 29, 2010

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