Talking About Death With Children

Linda Sharps
Healthy Living

When our family cat disappeared over a year ago, my then-preschooler was oddly blasé about her fate. "Maybe she went on a cat vacation for a while and she found a new family to live with and that's where she is," I mused in front of him.

"I don't think so, Mommy," he said. "I think she's DEAD."

Well, I had preferred to think of her lying on a beach somewhere sipping a catnip-mouse-spiked beverage of some kind, but fine, sure, squashed flat under the wheel of a car is a MUCH better mental image, kid.

We talked about death a little bit when I asked him to reconsider his habit of flattening insects with a mighty stomp of his size-8 toddler shoe. The bugs had mommies and daddies and they would be missed, I said dramatically. (Yes, that might have been a little silly, but I kept finding myself wondering if Jeffrey Dahmer got his start by deliberately squishing roly-poly bugs.)

He wasn't really curious about what it meant to die; in his mind, once something "got deaded"—be it by car wheel or coyote chomp or shoe smoosh—they were simply no longer there, end of story.

A couple weeks back, my husband's beloved uncle succumbed to cancer. He'd been sick for a while, then things escalated seemingly overnight and he was suddenly gone. This was my son's first experience with a person's death—a person he knew, who had taken him fishing, who was part of one of Riley's most favorite memories (the Famous Guys-Only Camping Trip of 2010)—and I was a bit surprised that he had the same matter-of-fact reaction to the news. I expected confusion, sadness, or at least a barrage of pointed questions ... but he seemed to take it in stride, simply repeating the facts back to us.

"Jack's dead. He was real sick and then he died," he'd say. Then in the next breath, "Hey can I have a LEGO Star Wars for my birthday?"

I actually found myself getting helplessly irritated with my son the night Jack died, because my husband was hurting and struggling to hold it together and Riley kept pestering him to come play cowboys or whatever and I took him aside and hissed directly into his face that he needed to
back off because Daddy was sad. I was mad, I guess, because my kid wasn't sad too.

In the days that followed it became more clear to me that Riley got it, he just wasn't processing the news the same way we were. He readily absorbed some of the details I had initially thought to keep from him—the concept of cremation, for instance—and he never seemed overly upset. But I knew he was thinking about it, because every now and then he'd talk about it. Out of the blue: "Remember when Uncle Jack took me in that boat? That was fun."

We took both boys to Jack's funeral and halfway through the service Riley leaned over and whispered, "I really miss Jack." My husband nodded and squeezed his hand.

I sometimes fret about how I wish I could shelter my children from the scary, sad things in life. I've wanted to seal them in a bubble and fill it with rainbows and flowers and a thousand happy things and never let them out. But of course I can't do that. And what a good thing, really, because it's sometimes made clear to me that I don't have enough faith in what they're capable of handling.

Have you had to talk to your kids about death? How did it go?

Read More