‘Til Death Us Do Part – How To Speak About Death To Your Kids

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Sometimes it is hard to speak to someone about difficult things.  Ok!  Maybe it’s really easy to talk to a dog about it.  Oreo would listen.  I promise.

Generally, I will admit, after many, many hours of torture, I try to keep my conversation on this blog fairly light, despite some topics that can be pretty intense and serious.  Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, I will leave for you, my humble readers, to decide.  I just want to make sure that when you arrive on my blog, you not only get some good information, but you actually enjoy yourself.  I imagine, for some of you, you have found authors one would much rather stick toothpicks under their finger nails than read another word of these writers.  Just turn that frown upside down and realize that when you need to torture someone else, you now have great material.  But I don’t want to be that torturer, no matter how much people may tempt me.

Given that I don’t want to torture people, when I sat down this week and decided I would generate a list of 50 topics for me to write about (I only reached 44), I brainstormed a bunch of topics that I found interesting.  Basically, I came up with a list of topics that I could discuss and make in a fun way.  I was proud of that list and excited to break it out when writing topics this week.  Then the world blew up.  Today, I cannot write about any of those things.   That doesn’t mean that I came to today’s topic and broke down in a fit of tears over my keyboard thinking about people staring at their computer screens putting toothpicks in their finger nails.  It also doesn’t mean that I woke up today and lost my ability to tell a joke.  What it means today is that I was forced to confront the one thing that should stop humor dead in its tracks.  I faced death.  My boss’s partner of 30 years had died the night before.

One thing I have learned over the past 43 years of my life is that you cannot make death funny.  I think that people tell jokes about it sometimes because they don’t want to face it, or the reality of their own mortality.  I remember being that immature teen who did this at the age of 18, when handling the death of a classmate and friend.  What’s worse is that we did this around a dinner table of friends who were, likewise, trying to cope.  Everyone lost their appetites.  There is nothing funny about death.  It’s also all enveloping.  It hangs in the air like something rotting you cannot find.  Eventually you find it and clean it out, but even when you do, the smell remains for a while.  So when I came to writing today, I couldn’t convince myself to write about any of those other topics.  (I tried threatening and bargaining but they didn’t work.  Whether stick or carrot, I would not budge.)  I had to write about this.

As this blog is about parenting, I am interested in how other parents handle the issue of death.  This led me to one question.  How as parents do we handle death around our children?  I know sometimes we try to ignore it.  We try to pretend that nothing happened and that the world went on without that person.  With our children we are especially wary to talk about the person who died.  We try to remove all of the pictures we have of them around the home.  We talk about them in hushed tones; and, when we do speak their name, we talk about seeing them again in some future place.  But does this equip our children properly to understand what is going on? And if it doesn’t, are we as parents just hoping to bide time until our kids are older so that we can talk to them about it when they are better prepared to handle that discussion?  This isn’t a criticism of this technique, merely a description.

The other method of dealing with death is to memorialize the person who died.  We become so afraid to forget this person we hang on to them as if they are the last life boat on the Titanic.  If we let go, we will be lost.  This can lead us into some situation like the Twilight Zone.  They become like a virus, where they are gone, but not gone.  We put up shrines scattered throughout the house.  There are regular memorial events that are held in this person’s honor.  Birth dates, death dates, communion dates, first date dates are commemorated.  We do this year, after year, after year.  We are perpetually haunted by the ghost of the person.  But unlike the Dicken’s Christmas ghosts, these ghosts do not teach us lessons.

Both of these methods have their drawbacks.  On the one hand, trying to pretend like the person did not exist does not allow us to experience the kinds of feelings that we need to feel in order to move on.  We become like people who have been abused, where the abuse haunts us years later because we weren’t able to properly release the person and let go.  The person may not be a ghost.  But our emotions become like ghosts to us.  The feelings haunt our subconscious; but, when we express them, we feel dead inside.  Turning the person into the next saint, and refusing to let go, prevents us from being able to move on from that point.  The person becomes a literal ghost in our imaginations, overseeing all of our thoughts and actions.  In either case, if we have people who loved us, they want us to be able to move on.

But this damage does not stop with us.  Our kids become victims too.  We become so fixated on our own feelings that we do not stop to ask how our children feel when we treat people who have died in this way.  If we act like the person doesn’t exist in front of our children, it is equivalent to gas-lighting them. (This is telling someone something you know not to be true in order to convince them that it is true.  The term originated in the film Gaslight with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer.)  This sets up a duality in the child’s mind.  Either their parents are lying to them, which isn’t good.  Or their parents are telling them the truth, and they feel like they are crazy.  Either way, we do damage.  If, on the other hand, people decide that they are going to treat this person like an ever-present saint, there is a pallor cast over the whole household.  This person gains way more power over the family in death than they had in life.  This power dynamic can put pressure on our children to act a certain way, or be a certain way.  Children feel like they can never live up to the memory of this person long after their death.  They become stunted in the grieving process because they cannot handle the loss.

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We would do anything for our kids.  Teaching them about death is as important as teaching them about life.

What do we do then?  (Application!  Application!  Application!  The voices of my writing teacher haunt me to this day.)  I can say where we screw up in so many ways but if I have no application here then it’s like I’m telling a person who is homeless to go get a job.  So what would I do with my child?  First, I would level with the child about what happened, about what death really means, and how we feel.  I know that while we are suffering it is hard to do this.  But we need our kids to know that it’s perfectly natural to feel things like hurt, pain, and even anger now and then.  I do realize that telling them what death means varies from person to person.  Ultimately, the person who is no longer with us, lives on through us.  Informing our children about this person, and how they have inspired you in beautiful ways, helps both you and the children process.

Admission is the first part.  But admission only starts the process.  From there we need to keep moving forward.  We do not allow ourselves to be caught up in the past of the person.  They would not want us to be stuck there.  For the sake of our children, we cannot remain stuck there.  Our kids need to see that death, is a natural part of life.  And the importance of the person is not solely in the things that they left behind, but in the way that they made you feel, and the ways that they have helped you to grow as a people.  Death is the ultimate call to growth.  It reminds us that life is temporary; and so we need to do things now that are truly meaningful.  We need to do this for us.  But above all we need to set the example for our children so that they will not be stuck when death strikes someone close to them.  They should be able to flourish, and we should not be the one’s holding them back.

I don’t have much more to say about this for the time being.  I know I have experienced death personally, losing a brother-in-law at the age of 22 from cancer.  I watched those who found meaning in his life and were able to grow from it.  I also watched it tear at the soul of people as they could not handle watching them go.  The person became like an ever-present ghost.  I have to say that it is horrible watching someone be haunted for years when I am sure that the person who haunts them would never want them to feel that way.

I hope that you were able to take something away from this.  I would love to know how you would handle death with children, or how have you handled it.  What worked?  What didn’t?  Please write in the comment section.  And if you have a personal question or something you would like me to write about, please send me a message in the contact page.  I will get back to you as soon as I can.  In the meantime, I will be back on Friday with the next fitness update.

Until then, this is me signing off.

David Elliott, Single Dad’s Guide to Life

44 thoughts on “‘Til Death Us Do Part – How To Speak About Death To Your Kids

  1. While I am not a parent, I remember my experience of death as a child was very confusing and I always imagined that the person would just return in the next few days. I could not understand that somebody could just cease to exist. You have touched upon an important topic here.

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  2. It’s definitely a tough issue to handle, and I’m sure no parent can do this perfectly. We’ve been unfortunate enough to have a couple of deaths in our close family, and they both touched my children deeply. Five years ago, my mother-in-law died. The kids lost their grandmother and this was hard on them. My youngest son was only 4 at the time, so I tried to explain that grandma was now in heaven, but he didn’t quite understand that she was gone. Now that he’s older, he is still sad about this. It’s like he had late-onset grief like it was put off until his mind was able to grasp the reality of it. Then a year ago, my sister died of leukemia. The kids watched her entire ordeal and then they had to attend her funeral. It was sad for them, but I think this time they handled it better because they immediately understood the finality of death. There’s really nothing you can do as a parent to cushion this, but I agree with the points you make in this post. Either ignoring or turning the deceased into saints are not healthy attitudes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My daughter feels like she was born into the whole notion of it. She faced it early and often, frequently before she was really ready to understand. It’s hard, no matter what you do or say. I agree.

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  3. We have a 21 month old so this has not been something we have or would bring up at this stage. I think if you are confronted with it suddenly you can have age appropriate conversations with kids. Different ages, different explanations in terms of words used and depth of conversation.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I can only imagine how difficult it must be to explain to a child about death. I don’t have kids yet and I haven’t lost someone close to me when I was a kid. You’ve made great points in this post and if I was in the same situation, I might deal with it similarly.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It is so difficult for adults to handle grief, so it is understandable that it’s hard for kids to handle it. My daughter has already been to several wakes before she even turns 2. My parents took us to wakes when we were younger, so we would understand it from very early on. I think it was helpful for us, because we had experience with wakes before we lost our grandparents.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. My 2 older kids had to learn about death at an early age – their uncle, my brother in law, died when they were young, I think around 5 and 7. They saw people all around us at the funeral, experiencing grief in many different ways, from stoic to screaming. I just explained to them that people show their sadness in different ways over someone who died. They understood that they wouldn’t see their uncle any more on earth, but would hopefully see him some day in heaven.

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  7. It is a great read. Talking about death is never easy for anyone. I lost my dad 4 years ago and its still hard for my family to talk about it so we try not to bring it up.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. My kids are 15 and 10 and they do know about death. But they haven’t experienced a family member dying yet that they are close to. Or an animal yet. I know when that time comes, it’ll be hard.

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  9. This is such a difficult topic to grasp for any child. I lost my father when I was a kid and took me years to understand it was permanent. Thanks for sharing!

    Mae of thegospelofbeauty.org

    Liked by 1 person

  10. This is a hard one. My oldest is only 4, and we haven’t really dealt yet with a death that she remembers. We lost my cousin when she was a few weeks old, but nothing that we had to speak with her about. Other than losing our pet turtle. Which was heartbreaking actually. It is never easy. I try to tell her they have moved on to a new and better place and we will one day be reunited.

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  11. As a full-grown adult, talking about death is STILL so difficult for me. I don’t know how to deal with it and, fortunately, the only person I’ve lost that I was very close to was my maternal grandfather. I will break into pieces when my grandmother’s time comes. I would love to hear what others have to say. I know everyone grieves in different ways and so I imagine the way you approach conversations should also vary depending on who you’re talking to.

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  12. This post was very interesting for me to read, especially because of the fact we lost someone in our family recently. I agree we should talk about it with our kids. I have tried to explain this to my 5 years old son the best I can.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you enjoyed it. I wish I hadn’t had to explain it so early, and so often early on. I’m just glad that my daughter adapted well and we can have real conversations about it.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. One of the most difficult topics to broach with your children. Helping them understand when a pet passes is hard enough. To help them understand when a human they love passes is devastating. You just want to take all the pain away for them but you can’t. Remembering them and reminiscing of stories of who they were and how much they were loved has helped us through some of the worst times.

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  14. I don’t have children yet but I could see how this topic can be very sensitive around children. I don’t know as of yet how I would handle it… it may change once I have children.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I’m not a parent but I had a similar experience with my nephew last month when he was watching television and saw death scene. Later, he asked gazillion questions and I tried to explain him as much as I could scientifically that its a law of nature…etc! Later he understood and thank God, he didn’t ask me any question when I met him last week!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. This is one of the worst conversations ever but definitely a necessary one. I remember when my granddad died I took us all by surprise and the process of me being in pain over the loss and having to sit with my son and explain to him what happened was horrible. Never an easy thing to do.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, it is not an easy thing to talk through for sure. My daughter was forced to deal with it so early. I wish she wasn’t but unfortunately she was.

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  17. Talking about death is not easy specially to a little one. The sense of loss of a loved one can be overwhelming for them. But instead of saying that people become stars when they die, we should actually give them proper reasons and tell them about what death is actually. Difficult but necessary.

    Liked by 1 person

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