My nephew was murdered in a drug deal. Do my young kids have to know?

We told the children a white lie, but on the holiday visit the adults are sure to talk.

Published December 6, 2005 11:00AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

My husband's nephew was murdered last summer. It was a particularly horrible death, with multiple arrests, and charges of conspiracy and kidnapping and many others on top of the murder. The trial has started, and it is becoming clear that my husband's nephew was clearly in over his head in the drug scene. He was a sweet young kid, and it breaks my heart that this could have happened.

My question is actually about my kids. I have two children, ages 4 and 8. We told them that their cousin had died, and that it was a terrible accident. At the time, I did not think they needed any more details, as the actual details of the murder were causing me sleepless nights. They did not know their cousin, although they know his parents fairly well.

We are going to visit my husband's family for Christmas, and I don't think I am going to be able to stop my in-laws from talking. They are understandably completely overwhelmed by what's happened, and I suspect that their need to talk will supersede any thought of protecting the kids. Can you suggest how I can tell the kids enough detail about what happened without terrifying them? The trial will probably still be going on when we get there, so I need to explain about that as well. I also would like them to understand that their cousin was a basically decent kid who made some really bad choices about drugs, so that maybe it will make them think twice when they get to their adolescence. Any help you could give would be appreciated.

Shocked and Saddened

Dear Shocked,

The first thing I would do is have a good conversation with your in-laws. Make clear that you feel for their loss, that you appreciate the difficulty of what they have suffered and that you know they are going through a hard, sad time. Show a willingness to talk about the matter and, most important, to listen. Do not do this simply as a prelude to making a request. Do it wholeheartedly. Discuss it as long as your in-law wants to discuss it. But before you conclude your conversation explain that while you yourself are available any time to talk, you would like to shield your children from overhearing any discussion of these tragic events.

Many parents will intuitively understand your concern. But if it is met with resistance, simply explain that your kids love their uncle and aunt very much and it would devastate them to think that such terrible things could happen to a child of theirs. Then, without being too doctrinaire or starchy about it, let your in-laws know that if the topic comes up, say, at the dinner table where children are present, you are going to ask that it not be discussed in front of the children, and that if it is discussed, you are going to remove the children from the room. Tell them this in advance as a courtesy, so that if you should quietly get up and take the children, they will understand why.

You cannot completely control what your children hear. Sometimes children eavesdrop on adults. Sometimes their peers tell them things. Simply do the best you can. Then, after you are back home, try to figure out if your children are disturbed by anything they heard. Children process information in ways that sometimes don't make sense to us. In order to acquire psychic protection against annihilating truths or fears, they will sometimes distort the literal truth. They will also generalize in ways that are far more sweeping than the constraints of reality would dictate. For instance, after hearing some version of these events, a child might believe that friends sometimes kill friends. This obviously could interfere with the willingness to make friends. Or a child might decide that his cousin had made friends with very bad people, and that what happened could never happen to him. It's hard to know how an individual child will interpret what he or she hears.

So just give some thought to what they might possibly believe. Keep in mind that they will not necessarily be able to tell you in words what they believe actually happened; what they're left with may be a set of disturbing images and fears that emerge as symbols in nightmares or in imaginative play.

If your kids have any questions about what happened to their cousin, of course try to answer in a way they can understand. Personally, I think it may be a little early to use this tragedy as a teaching example -- especially for the 4-year-old. Later, when they are adolescents, perhaps they could comprehend how involving oneself in criminal activities can lead to a violent death. For now, they just need to be reassured that they are safe with you in your house, and that no matter what might have happened to their cousin, it won't happen to them.

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