Jade Goody: 'Mommy's Going to Die,' Helping Kids Cope With Death

PHOTO How do you tell your children about death when you are dying yourself?AP Photos/Getty Images
British reality television personality Jade Goody , who is battling cancer, leaves her home in Upshire, England, Thursday Feb. 19, 2009./ /US actor Christopher Reeves is shown in this September 1997 file photo./Cancer-stricken Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch, author of "The Last Lecture" is shown in this September 14, 2007 file photo.

Reality TV has gone pretty far already. We live vicariously through breakups, weddings, even live births on cable. If death is all that's left, then a British reality TV star with terminal cervical cancer has gotten extraordinarily close to broadcasting that moment.

Jade Goody's publicist reported Monday how the 27-year-old mother is explaining to her children that she is going to die.

"She's saying, 'there's going to be a star in the sky and that's going to be mommy watching you,'" said Max Clifford, Goody's publicist. Clifford said that Goody and her children Bobby, 5, and Freddy, 4, were recently christened and that Goody has been using the experience to explain her future death.

"She's described that as 'through Jesus mommy will be in touch with you,'" Clifford said.

Such intimate details about a parental death are rarely this public -- either in private lives or in the media's glare. Actor Heath ledger's child, Matilda, has been kept out of the spotlight since his death in January 2008.

Although the untimely death of Princess Diana dominated the media in 1997, it was only last week that her son Prince William first spoke publicly about his loss.

"Never being able to say the word 'mummy' again in your life sounds like a small thing. However, for many, including me, it is now really just a word -- hollow and evoking only memories," he told a crowd during a child bereavement charity function Thursday.

While no one can soften the blow of losing a parent, social workers and psychologists who study bereavement say there are many steps and missteps families can take that will have an impact on the child later in life.

Clifford said Goody consulted with a bereavement social worker before speaking with her kids. The family chose to uniformly tell the children what will happen to their mother and bought a bereavement book called "Badger's Parting Gift."

In addition to books, experts have developed some working guidelines for speaking with children facing the death of a parent.

Creating a Legacy and Identity for Children After Death

When clinical social worker Luanne Chynoweth saw that her very young niece and nephew were going to lose their mother, she made them something that would keep their mother alive in their memory.

"Their mom was only 30," said Chynoweth, now an assistant director of social work services at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia.

"So we took pictures when she was still well at Easter and I gave the kids some framed pictures later of them being hugged and loved by their mom," she said. "That was very meaningful to them as adults."

Whether it's a scrapbook or a video, or a letter for a wedding day, bereavement experts say children are usually comforted by a visible or tangible connection to their parents' past.

Christopher Reeve

The children of the actor Christopher Reeve told ABC News' Cynthia McFadden that home movies of their father horseback riding have comforted them as adults.

"We grew up doing, I think, every physical activity known to man," Alexandra Reeve told ABC News. "We sailed, we rode horses and it was just a huge part of who he was as a person, and what we did as a family."

Inspired by their father, Alexandra's brother Matthew Reeve has made a documentary about his father's life after the horseback-riding accident that left him paralyzed in 1995.

"No matter what format, it gives a sense that this child was loved and what the person was like. It says, 'this is who my dad was, or my mom was, or my grandmother was,'" said Michelle Reiss, a psychotherapist and the assistant director for the Family Practice Residency Program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center St. Margaret Hospital in Pennsylvania.

Last Lecture of Randy Pausch

Reiss counseled the family of Carnegie Mellon University professor Randy Pausch before his death from pancreatic cancer at the age of 47 last year.

As part of a legacy for his three children, all younger than 7 when he died, Pausch gave a speech about life's lessons called "The Last Lecture," and saved it for his children. A videotape of the lecture went viral on the Internet and eventually reached an audience of millions.

Reiss said in the case of such young children, their lack of understanding of time and mortality can make talking about death very complicated.

Good Ideas and Bad Ideas When Talking to Your Kids About Death

"Little ones are not really capable of [understanding] the concept of death the way we do," Reiss said. "Lots of younger kids who lost parents look sad and seem to understand it and then ask, 'when is daddy coming back?'"

Research from the American Academy of Pediatrics shows that children begin to fully grasp the concept of death between the ages of 8 and 12.

But even if children don't fully understand, experts say it's important for parents to stay honest: honest about their future, honest about their beliefs for the afterlife and honest about their emotions.

"I wouldn't advise people to say things that they don't believe in," Chynoweth said. "I wouldn't think that you have to make something up. Kids are perceptive and they'll see that that's not genuine."

Aside from emotions, Chynoweth said some concrete facts can help a child watch a terminal illness.

"The good thing with kids is to prepare them for the things that they see," Chynoweth said. For example, if a parent has cancer, Chynoweth said it's reassuring for the child to hear a name of the diagnosis, a name for the medication and cause and effect explanations for such things as cancer medicine that causes the parent to lose their hair.

"It's basically not a good a idea to tell them dying is like going to sleep -- later they may want to go around checking everyone at night, or they don't want to sleep themselves," Reiss said.

On the other hand, Reiss said giving too much detail or long-winded explanations can confuse a child and add stress.

"It's pretty useful to give kids a little information and then give them a chance to ask questions," she said. That way, the parents will understand how much their child is grasping the concept of death.

Missing a Parent and Missing Closure

Reiss said that in her experience, children commonly have fears about life after the parent's death or have guilt over the death, rather than fear of death itself. In this case, a little preemptive reassurance that he or she will be cared for and isn't at fault can ease a lot of anxiety.

"There's no cookie-cutter way to say something to people," Chynoweth said. "But, if something is going to impact a child's life, they do need to know about it."

Whatever a parent's approach, counselors emphasize there are some clear mistakes families can make when going through the loss of a parent.

"You never want to lie and say 'I'm not going to die,'" Chynoweth said.

In her years of experience, Chynoweth said she noticed a lot of frustration from adults who had been shut out of discussions, funerals and other family events when they lost parents in childhood.

"When they discover they were left out of something, they feel angry for years," she said.