Can Kids Deal With Death?

In the wake of her mother’s funeral, our columnist knows that talking about death and dying with your children is about as dreadful as it gets. But it doesn’t have to be.

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In a couple of days it’ll be Halloween, and after that comes the Day of the Dead—a holiday that until fairly recently wasn’t commonly observed outside of Latino families and neighborhoods. The past few years have seen its mainstreaming, though (or appropriation, take your pick), and with the recent release of The Book of Life, its cartoonization.

My second-grader is totally into it.

“How do you say ‘day of the dead’ in Spanish, Mom?” he pipes up from the backseat. He has to use it in a sentence as part of his homework. “This year for Día de Los Muertos I will think of my Grandma Linda,” he writes.

My mother, his Grandma Linda, died a month ago and last weekend we went to Kansas for her memorial service. All four of her grandchildren read something at the service—they went in order of age and my son, the youngest and smallest, provided the comic relief every sad occasion requires when he walked onto the stage and completely disappeared behind the podium.

I couldn’t help thinking of the funeral of an elderly relative I had attended around the same age. Terrified (of what exactly, I don’t now remember), I had run and hidden in a shed. After my father came and found me, I was bundled into a long black car hired for the event, driven to a church, and forced to stand beside the dead man’s weeping widow. Her grief frightened and fascinated me. Later, I asked my mother, who had lost her own mother when she was quite young, what she thought happened after someone died.

“I think they haunt us,” she said. “I think they watch over us and check in and see how we’re doing. I don’t think they stop loving us, and I know we don’t stop loving them.” Her philosophy must have been influenced by becoming motherless at 14, but I also think it drew from the sentimental poem by Rosemary and Stephen Vincent Benet called “Nancy Hanks,” which imagines the eternal love and maternal worry of Abraham Lincoln’s dead mother. Mom used to read this to us and weep.

Death is a great equalizer. It gets every last one of us in the end. Still, every death is different, and every family talks about death in their own way. Religion can provide a strong narrative to follow in how we explain death to our kids, although it can really backfire. Julie lost her mother at age 5. She says her father told her “God needed her more than we did. I thought, I should have needed her more. Never got over it.”

Another friend, Susan, recalls being scared by a non-religious explanation. “My mom said that she was almost certain there was no afterlife and that death was like a long, peaceful sleep you never woke up from. I probably don’t need to add this, but at 6 years old, I (who didn’t particularly like to nap) found this terrifying.”

Leaving aside the fact that for many exhausted parents, a long peaceful sleep sounds like heaven and not hell, it really is difficult to know how to talk to your kids about death. Which may be why some don’t even try. My friend Linda’s parents never initiated any conversation about the subject when she was a child. “Then, in my early twenties, I asked my grandmother what Jews are supposed to believe about the afterlife because it seemed weird that I had never heard anything,” Linda says. “She said that since no one had ever come back to tell us about it, we have no way of knowing anything and it’s really pointless to think about it.”

As the examples above demonstrate, there are lots of ways to get this conversation wrong. So how to get it right? I think there are a lot of ways, and most of them depend more on listening than on talking (isn’t that always the way?).

·      Bring it up, whether or not your child does. Because even if they aren’t asking you about it, all kids are interested in and curious about death—it seems that the early grade-school years are when the idea especially fascinates them. Think of it this way: If you don’t share your ideas about death and dying, they’ll be left to contend alone with what they hear from other kids at school. Or crazy Aunt Ethel.

·      Keep your explanations clear and direct. Avoid confusing euphemisms like “we lost Grandma” as much as possible. And expect to tell the story over and over again (why should death be any different from all the other stories you have to repeat ad infinitum?).

·      Let your children know they can ask you any questions, big or small. (Your job is to remember this key bit of wisdom: “I don’t know” is a good enough—in fact, sometimes the best—answer.)

·      Let yourself cry in front of your kids, and let them cry, too. Don’t rush them to “cheer up,” “get over it,” or “move on.” My friend Bobbi, who grew up on a Midwestern farm, said that she was raised to see that “death was always part of life. I don’t know if my parents ever talked about them separately. We were always given space to be sad.”

·      Most experts agree that kids can and should attend funerals and memorial services, if they want to. The same rituals and community that help adults cope with sadness can help kids, too.

·      No matter how old you are, sometimes it’s easier to confront the idea of death through art, especially literature. Among the classic works that deal sensitively and honestly with death are E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, Margaret Wise Brown’s The Dead Bird, and the classic Sesame Street episode about Mr. Hooper’s death.

Adults tend to think kids will have a hard time understanding death, but I’ve come to believe that this is just projection—children, after all, believe more readily than adults in magic, in imaginary friends, in secret messages and hidden worlds. My son knows that his grandmother’s life on Earth is over, but our memories and stories about her are still as alive as ever.


Photo credit: Flickr user Michael B.

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