PITTSBURGH – Fred Rogers taught his young viewers that death was something to be talked about. It shouldn't be any different now that Mister Rogers is gone.
The group that produced Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, Family Communications Inc., is telling parents not to shy away from their children's questions in the wake of Rogers' death. A pioneer in children's television, Rogers, 74, died in Pittsburgh early Thursday after a bout with stomach cancer.
"As Mister Rogers always said, 'Whatever is mentionable can be more manageable.' Crying, feeling sad, that's part of being human," said Hedda Sharapan, an associate producer with the show, which has continued to broadcast repeats since the final new episode aired in August 2001.
"Young children need help in dealing with this. They don't understand death the same way adults do," she said.
The people who created the show say parents need to be aware that every child will experience the news of Rogers' death in his or her own way. It's important, they said, that parents ask how their children feel about it and listen to what they say.
"If you only say, 'He was sick and died,' children may worry that you or they might die, too, when you're 'sick' -- with the flu or a cold," the group said on its Web site.
Some children may not believe Rogers is dead because they just saw him on television. In this case, parents may want to explain that when people die they cannot come back to life, "but Mister Rogers put his programs on videotape so they can be shown over and over again," the Web site said.
Rogers faced the subject of death on his show. On one program, he discussed the death of a fallen bird; another dealt with the death of one of his goldfish.
At the end of the program about the goldfish, he sang a song in which he said it's OK not to have all the answers about death.
In an article on the Family Communications Web site, Rogers and collaborator Barry Head, a member of the Family Communications' board of directors, wrote about the need to be honest with children.
"Just being close to our children and being willing to listen to their concerns about death -- or anything else -- allows them to know that they can mention difficult things to us and we'll respect their 'wonderings' and be as honest and helpful as we know how," they wrote.
The two also wrote a book entitled Mister Rogers Talks with Parents.
Alan Hilfer, a child psychologist at Maimonides Medical Center in New York, said Rogers -- more than anyone else -- would have wanted parents to talk to their youngsters at this time. Rogers' death, he said, could be "a springboard potentially for the kind of discussions that Mr. Rogers loved."
And he noted Rogers' lasting message: "You have to take time. You have to listen. You have to take them seriously."