Discussing Death with Kids in 5 Easy Steps

Recently, a neighbor died, which opened the door for discussing death with kids in five simple steps:

  1. Just talk about it – if you’re sad or mad or depressed or even happy or relieved or whatever. Emotions are all okay.
  2. Just talk about it – what you think happens after death in whatever way makes sense to you.
  3. Just talk about it – my death, your death, everyone’s death.
  4. Just talk about it – how life goes one for the rest of us.
  5. Just talk about it – the ways your life was changed by the deceased.

We took them to the funeral where they were by far the youngest attendees. We walked in last (that’s how we roll) and I imagine many people thought, “are you crazy having your kids at a funeral?” In addition to the torture of cultural experiences, a funeral is another opportunity for memorable, learning memories.

But I think discussing death with kids is important – for all our emotional health.

Having lost my father at age 8 and then my mother at age 33, I was a “young orphan”. And I’ve thought a lot about death and our (as Americans) relationship with death.

A few months after the death of my mother, a friend asked “How are you doing? Or, wait – do you want me to talk about it? Are you okay talking about it? Is that wrong for me to ask? Oh, shoot. Sorry I brought her up.”

“Yes! Please ask me about it. Especially a few months down the line, please – ask away. It feels good to talk about her. I won’t get emotional – or if I do, so be it. But it feels good NOT to ignore the fact that I’ve had a massive life change a few months ago and now everyone walks on eggshells around me.”

That was eye-opening. I wanted to talk about my mom and the experience of losing her or getting accustomed to my new normal.

We suck at death in America. We’re uncomfortable addressing it with those in mourning (are we afraid of emotion, entirely?), think we’re bringing down the people who are going through a loss, afraid to discuss “nothing” after being selfish our entire lives, avoid thinking about our demise, and don’t know how to healthily talk about it or approach it. And certainly discussing death with kids is a topic avoided until it’s in our faces.

Look at the hysteria over “death panels” during the Obamacare debates and Sarah Palin’s talking points about “killing Grandma” and the fact that so much money is spent to prolong life by a few months when in reality we should be considering how best to healthily accept the end of life with quality rather than reflexively thinking that living on life support would be the active choice anybody actually wants. So discussing death with kids freaks us all out.

But I digress.

Unlike many other societies throughout world history, we don’t look at death as part of life. It’s to be avoided, so discussing death with kids is definitely taboo.

But accepting death and letting sadness flow through us is healthy.

Back to kids at a funeral.

I want my own to know that several things surrounding death are healthy –

  1. To be sad.
  2. To cry and to see other people cry.
  3. To know that death happens.
  4. To think fondly of the people we’ve lost and not repress their memory.
  5. To learn from the gifts of those we’ve lost.

Our loss was that of an elderly neighbor. She didn’t actually like my partner and I very much (long story for another post) but she was welcoming and loving to our kids (and still civil with us).

Moreover, she was an indefatigably generous woman who volunteered throughout the community and set a great example for the way I’d like to live as a septegenarian and octogenarian.

Most important (for her and her family) she lived a rich life full of family and experiences. She died ten years earlier than she should have, but at 87 she’d lived an enviable life.

So I emulate her.

And because she was a constant in my kids’ life, I wanted them to experience her death.

When we, as a family, paid respects to her visiting family, my older kid excitedly asked, “Can we go to the funeral?” like it was a birthday party.

Later, when I said, “Um, Sweets, that wasn’t really the way…”

She said (without rolling her eyes), “Yes, I know Daddy. That wasn’t the way to talk about a funeral.”

Glad we established that.

We checked out a book at the library entitled The Funeral. It was sweet to see a funeral through the eyes of an 8-year-old, except that this 8yo was able to run around in the church playground during the entire service and got to eat lots of refreshments and cookies. (I planned to force them to sit quietly in the church for at least 45 minutes.)

So of course my kid asked, “Will there be refreshments?”

“Yes, sweetie, I think there will be refreshments, but that’s not what a funeral is actually about.”

“Daddy, I know!” (This time, there was an eye roll.)

The night before the funeral, my younger kid said, “Tomorrow will be sad.”

“Yes it will,” my partner said. “But that’s okay.”

We dressed up and drove to the beautiful New England church.

The service clipped along and had the right balance of celebration and mourning. A few hymns were sung, the minister welcomed those in attendance who weren’t comfortable with religion and stated, “We are about freedom, here – the freedom to honor the human experience in whatever way is comfortable for you.”

There was a little Jesus, a little God, a little worship, a few laughs and a lot of humanity.

Ultimately, my kids have had enough church experiences that they knew what to expect. They were antsy, but not obnoxious. They heard words like death and mourning and God and whatnot.

When the deceased woman’s son broke down, briefly, during his eulogy, my older kid turned to me with a gasp, “Is he crying?”

“Yes,” I said.

Her eyes widened as she shifted to see my face straight on.

“Are you crying?” she asked.

“A little bit,” I said.

My eyes were wet. I was thinking about my mom, my life, my kids growing too quickly, my aging in-laws, and then also about how awesome this woman was (even if she didn’t really like me) and my kids’ loss of the intriguing old woman who lived nearby and always welcomed them into her home. (Not to mention the time they walked right into her house when she wasn’t there because they wanted to see the view from her second floor…unbeknownst to us.)

These are all losses and part of life’s journey.

And it’s good to be sad.

And for my kids to see me sad.

When there were references to the incident that applied to our falling out with the deceased, my partner and I shared a smirk. Bygones were bygones. Let’s celebrate life of an inspirational woman.

And afterward, there were refreshments.

Except my kids were disgusted by the fancy finger foods that included smoked salmon mini toasts, cucumber sandwiches, egg salad, fresh vegetables and turkey mini-wraps.

There were cookies, tho. And my little monsters were forced to eat some cucumber sandwiches and raw veggies before having about six cookies.

Each.

My younger kid returned twice, on his own, to the display of pictures to see our neighbor in her prime and through her years – piloting a sailboat in the 1950’s, laughing with her children as a young mother, and laughing with her children as an old woman.

We greeted all of her kids, all of whom did a good job brushing past the fact that she wasn’t our biggest fan, and thanked us for coming.

It was important to us – to honor her, and to teach our kids about death and loss and mourning and sadness.

I said as much to one of the daughters-in-law, and she said, “That’s beautiful that my mother-in-law’s life keeps on teaching. That’s just what she’d hope for.”

We left feeling fulfilled. And sad. And that’s okay.

And full of cookies.

When you’ve got friends who’ve had loss, I ask you not to shy away from talking about the loss. It’s good to sit in sadness with those who mourn.

It brings us all closer and helps the grieving process.

Death shouldn’t be shunned or ignored. It should be discussed and embraced and accepted and acknowledged.

It’s healthier for us all that way.

This post was previously published on E.C. Knox and is republished here with permission from the author.

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