talking with small children about death

When we sat down to plan Reece’s funeral, our funeral director looked at us and said, “It’s not very often we are planning a funeral for a child.” And it’s true. We went on to discuss how due to modern medicine (mostly), our society isn’t as familiar with childhood death as we were some time ago. We also aren’t as accustomed to the death of a spouse.  In the not-so-distant past, people got sick and died from things that we don’t routinely discuss anymore…things like pneumonia, polio, yellow fever, cholera.  It even was common to have a deceased person viewed in one’s home, versus a funeral home.  Death wasn’t a taboo topic, it was a fairly normal and expected topic.  More people worked in laborious jobs where accidents occurred more frequently. Many more babies passed away in utero or shortly after childbirth. Fewer treatments existed to rid bodies of diseases. In my own family two of my four great-grandfathers passed away, each with a wife and four young children left behind.  Death happened. It was hard, but it was part of what happened more regularly.  It still happens, but I believe we’ve become a bit tongue-tied around the subject.  Death still happens, it just takes a few more years (on average) to get there.

With my children, talking about death is of great importance. In our situation, I have only one child that will have any memory of either Terry or Reece. As hard as it must be to lose a sibling, I suspect for my children, it will be much harder to grapple with the loss of their dad.  After all, they have no memory of Reece being here.  And they’ll have very little memory of Terry.  However, they will always be faced with explaining that their dad isn’t here–Father’s Day, birthdays, Christmas, Dad-and Daughter/Son events.  You get it.  It’s important for me to try to get this right; to try to be cognizant of my kids’ need to discuss death with them, because it will come up whether I like it or not.  It will naturally come up in the safety net of our home and it will probably less naturally come up with my kids in social environments such as school, activities, and church.  People don’t want to discuss death, but they also have a curiosity about what-happened-to-so-and-so.  My hope is that I will have prepared them certain ways to be able to handle themselves when this occurs.

I watched this short clip the other day.  It is under two minutes long (so I recommend taking the time to watch it!) and captures kids talking about the loss of a parent.  It was touching to hear it in the kids’ own words…so simple, so real, so relatable.

After watching this video, I looked into the New York Life Foundation and their efforts to support bereaved children.  Their web page is found at:  Great resources abound on this site for family members, educators, and anyone who is supporting a bereaved child.  It’s worth checking into, should you find yourself trying to support children through loss.

I find myself on the cusp of deeper discussions with Britta.  In truth, my kids will remember very little from the time when their dad was here.  Their reality will be what lies ahead of us right now.  Still, these discussions will come up, looking quite different from what they likely would if my kids were older.  They will still have grief, questions, and natural curiosities about Terry and Reece.  I’m no expert, but my plan is to remain as honest and open as I can, while considering the maturity levels of my kids.

I respect that different people choose to handle things differently than our family in an effort to cope with loss and wade through the deep waters.  It’s truly a matter of surviving uncharted territory in life and it’s unique to each situation.  However, here are some things I have found helpful in our home:

1.) I don’t lie to my kids about death.  I avoid having to undo damage from making up stories that seem a little more tidy.  Death is real, it happens, it’s a fact.  It isn’t appropriate to discuss the details of either Terry’s or Reece’s situations at this point, but my kids (basically Britta for now) do know that Reece was ill and that both Terry and Reece had “owies”.  They know that sometimes, we can’t fix things here.  We also discuss that at some point, everyone will have something happen that can not be fixed here, but it happens for everyone at their own special time.  They know that sometimes, it takes Heaven to be fixed.

2.) We openly talk about Terry and Reece.  They are members of our family.  We laugh and joke about them and remember fun things that happened with them.  We incorporate their names into play and discuss the things they liked and disliked.

3.) We talk about Heaven…a lot.  I’ve really strayed from discussing Heaven in common contexts that are inconsistent with the biblical descriptions of it.  I completely respect that other people handle this differently; people I greatly care about.  However, we never call Reece and Terry angels.  People turning into angels after they pass away seems comforting, but in actuality, it never mentions this in the Bible.  Additionally, I don’t plan on reading books like “Heaven is for Real–for Kids” to them, until they are much older.  I don’t want them to assume that because that child had that experience, that is what they should expect Heaven to be.  My goal is to talk about what it might be like for Reece and Terry in Heaven with a biblical basis behind it.  At some point, they will be old enough to own their feelings and form their own opinions about Eternity.

4.) I am trying to get better at asking Britta about how she feels about her dad.  I can tell when she’s “off” and when it is likely because of his passing, but I also realize that it shouldn’t be up to her alone to bring up how she’s feeling.  I’m not going to somehow make her feel worse by bringing Terry into our conversation.  I know this reality for myself…I’m trying to translate my own feelings about discussing things into my approach on discussions with her.

5.) I try to let Britta guide the conversation.  She often interjects something about Terry or Reece in what seems like an “out of the blue” fashion.  I have found it helpful that when she asks questions about them to remember her age.  I immediately go to a very heavy place.  She, however, is four and thinks like a four-year-old.  I try to keep things as basic as possible and often the conversation leaves as randomly as it started.  One second she is asking about Terry’s passing and the next she wants to know if dinosaurs ate turtles.  Additionally, I resist the urge to drill down into her questions.  Once she has left the topic, I rarely try to get her back there.  I know she is processing, but it seems the more I ask, the less she says.

6.)  Many times I tell Britta, “I’m not sure.”  This response is often the best I can do and is perfectly acceptable.

I recognize that my conversations are catered to the needs of very small children.  This would be entirely different if my kids were even a few years older.  I still get a bit twisted up when I am discussing someone else’s loss with that person.  It’s a hard thing to do with other people, including kids, and it’s hard to know what to say, because there is no right thing to say.  Yet the hardest thing to have happen when you are going through grief, is to have no one say anything at all.