If there's one subject parents find tougher to talk with their kids about than sex, says family therapist Audrey Bridgeforth-Chapman, it's death.
"People put off talking about death until it happens," she says. "But then there's so much emotion involved, it's even harder to discuss."
One reason death is rarely discussed with children is because "adults themselves have problems dealing with it, probably because it puts us in touch with something no one wants to think about -- the fact that each of us will die.
"We buy life insurance, but hope never to use it. We sit in church and say we want to be nearer to God, but add silently, 'Please, not me right now.' So we're reluctant, or afraid, or uncertain of what to say to our kids."
But there's no way, says Chapman, to avoid the subject, "particularly in the black community. There's a high rate of homicide among blacks -- people are familiar with the phenomenon of black-on-black crime."
[There has been a "marked increase" in the number of black suicides over the past 10 years, according to Dr. Jay Chunn, dean of the Howard University School of Social Work, who calls the problem an "epidemic" among black youths and young adults.]
"And then there's Atlanta," says Chapman. "It's created an atmosphere of fear across the nation among all black families. Many parents say, 'I don't know what to say or do for my children; they no longer feel safe anywhere." Many are just as frightened as their children."
Chapman see these reactions to death frequently in her work as a community mental health therapist with the Howard University Counseling Service, where she specializes in the concerns of adolescents.
Three years ago she prepared a "mini-conference" on discussing death with children at the request of parents and teachers who said the subject was "coming up frequently in the classroom."
She is now working on a model program for counseling bereaved families and community members in Atlanta (where 27 children and young adults have been murdered). "Atlanta raises anxieties that need to be discussed," she says. "It's painful, but the best way to help people is to talk about it.
"You don't want to overwhelm or paralyze your child, but you can ask -- with compassion and openness -- 'How does it make you feel?" You want children to know that the family, the community and the police are going to do whatever they can to protect them -- including having rules about knowing where they are at all times.
"But it's not wise to say, 'It's not going to happen to you,' because that's not something you can guarantee. You want to help children put it in perspective . . . so they understand this isn't something that happens 365 days a year."
The best way to talk to children about death, says Chapman, is "beforehand, when it comes up naturally." Logical times are when a pet dies or when a character in a book or TV show or movie dies.
"You can even have a little funeral for pets, so the child knows how it's done." While she doesn't advise conducting funerals after the demise of every bug or turtle, "I don't think it hurts to have it one time.
"Death is a part of life, so it's pointless -- or harmful -- to ignore it. It's part of a child's development, too, to have that fear of scarey things -- monsters and ghosts and death." These fears, usually apparent around age 4 or 5, decrease in adolescence.
The "biggest mistake" people make, says Chapman, "is not talking about death in an honest manner. One mother told her child that the grandfather went to sleep when he died. Then she got concerned when the child began having trouble sleeping."
When a parent refuses to discuss death honestly, a child often makes up an explanation. "Even if you don't tell the child what's going on, her or she is going to sense that something's happening. There are a lot of phone calls, and their parents are talking in whispers."
From the bits and pieces of information children overhear, they may created a distorted fantasy. Children -- because of their egocentric view -- may, for example, conclude that they are responsible for the unusual behavior, and/or the death.
"As with sex," says Chapman, "it's not necessary to give a child a long, involved explanation. Just answer simply, as best you can, keeping in mind the age of the child. Obviously a 5-year-old will understand on a different level than a 15-year-old."
Parents, she says, often don't understand the several psychological stages the bereaved -- adults and children -- go through.
"The first is denial. As with any kind of loss -- of a job, divorce, getting robbed -- the first impulse is to say, 'No, it didn't happen."
Then comes anger or depression, often displaced on an unrelated person or thing. "Someone at work who's usually cool may snap at you because they're really upset about their loss."
Next is guilt, which often includes a bargaining process -- particularly if someone is dying. "It's the desire to promise 'I'll do anything you want Lord, if you spare this person.'"
Last comes acceptance. To get to this point, Chapman believes crying is necessary: "I think it cleanses the soul." Attending the funeral can be helpful "because it makes you admit the fact that the person's gone, and begins to take you through the grief process."
Children from "a mature 4- or 5-year-old and up," she says, "could probably handle a funeral and should take part. The parent should describe a funeral a little bit, and ask the child if they want to go. But don't force them if they don't want to go."
Someone who doesn't work through each "grief stage," she says, "may get stuck in one -- which can cause psychological problems. A child stuck in the depressed stage could get rashes or start bed-wetting.
"All members of the deceased person's family will be experiencing these phases, so the adults will also need to ventilate their feelings. Sometimes parents need to admit their own uneasiness, and say, 'Mom and Dad are upset now, too.'
"They may need to go ask for help first, so they can become comfortable enough to assist their children. It's important for people to know there are supports out there, and they are in no way inadequate if they want to seek help from a professional source."