Ever since news broke of Chadwick Boseman’s death from colon cancer, many parents have been fielding complicated and heartbreaking questions from their tiny Marvel fans about the passing of the “Black Panther” star.
King Westbrook said his 7-year-old son, Kian, was “devastated” when he learned of Boseman’s death at age 43.
“I’m not saying that lightly,” Westbrook, who lives in St. Louis, told TODAY Parents. “Chadwick was his hero. … Black Panther was important to him, because Kian loved seeing a superhero hero that looked like him. He understands Black Panther is fictional, but he made Kian believe a Black boy could grow up and be a strong Black superhero.”
Westbrook shared a photo on Twitter over the weekend showing a memorial service Kian staged with his Black Panther action figure and other Marvel toys. More than 619,000 people have liked the tweet.
Westbrook isn’t the only parent whose kids want to find a way to memorialize Boseman, who also played Black historical characters like Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and baseball great Jackie Robinson.
Rachel Garlinghouse, who shares her experiences adopting and raising Black kids on her Instagram account, White Sugar Brown Sugar, recently posted a photo of a sign her 9-year-old daughter created for her bedroom door as a tribute to Boseman.
“I think what’s interesting is she ended ‘Wakanda forever’ with a period and not the typical exclamation point. I thought that was telling of her feelings,” said Garlinghouse, who shared her four kids’ love for seeing Black heroes portrayed by Marvel both in “Black Panther” and in the animated film “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.”
“Having superheroes who look like them — who aren’t just the sidekicks or villains and who aren’t stereotyped — is so important,” said Garlinghouse, who lives outside St. Louis.
Anthony Mobley of Melbourne, Florida, saw “Black Panther” on opening day with his son, James, now 12. Mobley recalls his son’s excitement about a Black superhero.
“He was beaming for a week afterwards,” Mobley said, adding that they returned to the theater the following week to watch the film again. “I’m saddened by his passing not just because of the Black Panther role, but because his body of work seemed to be a tribute to Black heroes. It was inevitable that he was going to be a hero in his own right.”
“I was proud that my little Black boy saw someone who had his skin tone be a king and stand up for others,” Mobley said. “I love that he saw himself in the Avengers.”
Reena Patel, a licensed educational psychologist and guidance counselor, said that when her 6-year-old learned of Boseman’s passing, he changed into his Black Panther pajamas and mask as a way of coping with the sad news.
“Yes, this is a loss of a character larger than life and a celebrity most never met,” Patel said, “but to our children this is a loss of someone who showed us anything is possible and someone who may have looked like them.”
Patel said that as with any loss, it’s normal for children to work through their grief. While losing a celebrity they connect with may be a rare experience for kids, it’s important for parents to treat the news as a loss, validating and empathizing with their children.
“Answer their questions, even the difficult ones,” Patel said. “Allow your child to say goodbye, and validate any memories they want to share.
“Maybe your child wants to take out their Black Panther figurines and play with them more or bury their toy as closure,” she continued. “This is OK. Allow them to do what they feel is right.”
Patel said that above all, it’s about being there for your children and letting them process their feelings in the way they feel most comfortable.
“Show empathy by imagining what it would be like if you were their age and had a similar loss of your favorite superhero,” she said. “Use statements such as ‘This must be hard’ and ‘I see that you seem sad, and that’s OK.’ If they cry or their emotional response to typical situations seem off, this is expected, as they are still professing their grief.”