Talking to kids about death

The first and only time I saw my dad cry was when our cat died. The generally stoic man sobbing was much more fascinating to me than the “death conversation” my mom was trying to have with me, so I didn’t absorb much. Later, she read me a book about falling leaves and that was as close as I got to understanding dying.

Skip ahead a few decades and all of a sudden my son is creeping closer to losing pets and grandparents and I wasn’t sure if we had ever really spoken about death.

I had a tough three years when I lost five very close friends, as well as two pets. Having not grown up in a religious family, I was left on my own to sketch what happens after. My friends had been happy people, who had taught me much. I liked to imagine a part of their soul came to blend with mine after it left their body. They were always with me to grow, witness, laugh and cry, just like they had been on Earth.

To remember them, I planted a beautiful tree for each and my son knows their names (Janet’s Hydrangea, for example). To honor death, we celebrate life. I like the simplicity in that message. Maybe that’s enough.

As parents, we each have unique ways to integrate the cycles of life into our families. But based on the conversations I’ve had recently with several moms, there is one constant: Don’t make it a big, scary mystery. Gentle honesty is key.

The loss of a pet is often the first experience with death a child will have. There is a golden opportunity to create your own tradition.

Amy Kapise of North Yarmouth says, “We feel each pet was a beloved companion of our family and each experience served a purpose, gave us memories, taught us lessons, filled our hearts. We have a special spot for their burial and the children were able to draw pictures, write a poem, do nothing or add something special of their choosing in order to give closure in the way they needed and wanted. It is an opportunity to also teach the children that not every person handles grief the same way.”

But sometimes, our children first experience death through the loss of a sibling or parent.

Theresa Hutchins Seekamp of Portland lost her husband when their daughter was a baby. “From the very beginning, in terms she understands, I gently explained what happened,” she says. “He comes up in conversation every day. I’ll say, ‘Your dad used to do this,” or she says, ‘I’m just like my dad because we like the same things!’”

Hutchins Seekamp says she never shies away from answering her daughter’s questions and answers them the best she can. This candor has allowed comfort in talking about him and she often catches her daughter talking to his picture or looking up to heaven and singing to him.

“We are constantly telling her how much her dad loves her—even while he’s heaven.  Because of all of this, she’s always confident and matter-of-fact when talking about her dad to people. Honestly, it’s helped me heal as well,” Theresa says. “It really is like he’s always with us and, I never want that feeling to fade for her.”

Isn’t the hope that we never fade from the people that we care for? And in that, we need to teach our kids to honor the life within each miraculous day and person, because like the leaves, we never know when it may fall away.

Maggie Knowles writes about all things kid. She and her family live in Yarmouth, where she gardens, keeps bees and refuses to get rid of her stilettos.

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