November 17, 2012

Ask the Expert: Parenting & Death ~ Michael Finkelstein, M.D.

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The Circle of Life


This month I’ve been dealing with quite a difficult and first-of-its-kind parenting situation for me and my daughter. A good friend of hers from middle school was diagnosed with Leukemia. She’s been given four weeks to live.

Her friend’s mother let all the mothers of her best girlfriends know, and of course told us it was up to us as to how we wanted to handle this with our daughters. A lot of the moms are apprehensive about telling their daughters what is happening, which has forced me to ask myself how I should handle the situation.

Should I be completely upfront and honest with my daughter? Then, what if the diagnosis turns around? Do I tell her her friend is very sick and let her find out organically once the death occurs? Do I bring her to visit the hospital? What about the wake and funeral? How much should I shelter my daughter from? And, how much can she mentally and emotionally handle at 13 years old?


Thank you so much for your openness, and for exposing your vulnerability about this very difficult situation—not only for your daughter, but for you as well.

It’s important to remember that death is never easy. Whether the person is 10 years old or 100, loss is a sensitive subject. But, the reality is it’s real, and as long as we live in this universe we will always have to deal with death, dying and unfortunately, suffering.

In a way, you have a very unique opportunity to expose your daughter to something early on that she will be dealing with the rest of her life. In the long run she will be better off for this, although it may not seem so now.

In terms of what she can emotionally and mentally handle, don’t underestimate the maturity and emotional readiness of an adolescent. They can often handle much more than we give them credit for. And in that regard, they can only handle it if they are exposed to it. So, the more exposure and experience she receives, the stronger she will become.

But, this is not even all of it. The truth is, even for a younger child, this exposure is valuable. How they handle it is really a product of the culture at large, and even more importantly, the culture at home.

Death is a part of life and needs to be addressed. Although it will hurt you to see your daughter in pain, it’s a testament to the strength of your relationship with her that you’re able to open up and be honest with her. This will encourage her to be open and be honest with you.

Listening is a big part of this. Once you explain what is happening, let her talk. Let her ask questions. Let her tell you what she’s feeling and what she needs in order to deal with this. She will tell you if she wants to see her friend in the hospital. If you can tell she wants to but is scared, encourage her that you’ll be there by her side and that her friend is just as scared as she is.

In the case that her friend passes, I see no reason not to encourage her to partake in the services. Perhaps she’s been to calling hours, shiva calls or funerals before, either way it’s important for her to witness these ceremonies as a sense of closure and release of her friend from all her pain and suffering. Quite likely the beauty that is apparent on such an occasion will put the sanctity of life into perspective, an invaluable lesson at any time of life.

Also, since parenting is a delicate exercise and dealt with differently by everyone, it is crucial for your daughter to be aware that her peers may not be handling the situation in the same way. It’s important to be sensitive and open to the ways in which they are dealing with this tragedy.

Lastly, your daughter’s questions, pain, suffering, confusion and experience with this situation are not going to go away instantly. As we all know, time is the only thing that heals such a wound. Make sure she feels comfortable talking about this at any time, day or night, whenever it is on her mind. It’s the only way to heal, just like you would.

Perhaps she goes to the cemetery once a month to visit the grave and talk to her friend, or perhaps she writes a letter to her when she’s thinking about her. This presence of her friend that was a big part of your daughter’s life does not have to disappear simply because she is no longer on this earth.

So, in conclusion, there is no right or wrong when it comes to parenting, or dealing with death for that matter. But, I don’t believe avoiding it and many of the elements around it is in her best interest long term.

This is a real life lesson, more practical in many ways than what she is learning in the sterilized, “academic” hallways at school. This is a great opportunity. Indeed, your daughter’s friend, if you want to put it this way and I suggest you do, through her illness is providing an extraordinary gift. There is great beauty in this moment, and I would make sure you include that in your conversations.

It’s all very natural and reveals the heart and soul level bonds we have with each other. Take the time to thoroughly explore this with your daughter. It will help her make sense of what others do and how to conduct herself even in her young life, and certainly as she matures. It will not only restore faith, but it will create the trust that is necessary to help you continue to build that special open, honest relationship with your child, that will become the very foundation of her faith.

Good luck. Remember to trust your own instincts and your daughter’s capability to comprehend and understand as much as you are willing to open up her world to.


Michael Finkelstein, M.D. has gained acclaim for his pioneering approach to integrative medicine, since beginning his private practice more than twenty years ago. Board-certified in both internal medicine and holistic medicine, a Fellow of the American College of Physicians and a graduate of the Associate Fellowship Program in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona School of Medicine, Dr. Finkelstein is a self-professed “Doctor of Common Sense.” He is a dedicated healer who views health and well-being as a wholly singular unit, one that must be taken seriously and considered with compassion, intention and commitment. Dr. Finkelstein’s concept of “skillful living” applies this holistic approach to overall well-being – the business of living must be developed, like a skill, with mindful, dedicated attention. To read more from Dr. Finkelstein, sign up for his bi-monthly Moon Letter here or for further information visit his website.


Editor: Sara McKeown

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