Talking to your kids about death

June 29, 2007 | Atheism, Conversion | 23 comments

I took the kids over to my mom’s house the other day and we found a dead bird on her porch. My mom, a friend of hers, the kids and I were trying to figure out how to deal with it (no big deal for those of us from the land o’ scorpions) when my two-year-old son asked, “What happened to the birdie? Why is it sleeping there?”

My mom and her friend looked at each other and then at me, and both seemed really uncomfortable. I interrupted their hemming and hawing about the birdie going night-night and just said, “The birdie died. That means that he’s going to live in a place where we can’t see him, and just his body is going to stay here.” Not high theology, I know. It was just the first thing that came to mind.

My mom’s friend pulled me aside later and said, “Isn’t it a bit early to be talking to him about DEATH?!”

I actually hadn’t thought about it. It didn’t seem like that big of a deal to explain the concept to him and I didn’t have any plans to withhold the big “death discussion” until he was at a certain age. I can’t tell if I’m on the right track or if maybe I’m being way too laid back about it. I’m still so psyched about the whole “God exists” thing that maybe I’m not sensitive to others’ trepidation about the subject.

I was still an atheist when my son was born. At some point when he was a baby the subject of talking to your kids about death came up, and it made me feel so depressed. How on earth can I ever break it to him?, I thought. Is there maybe some Barney episode that could handle this one for me, where he sits down with the kids and explains that everybody will die one day? Maybe he could incorporate a little song to soften the part about how there’s no eternal soul or memory beyond the grave so you simply cease to exist. But then you just know that that nosy kid with the glasses is going to ask, “But Barney, doesn’t that mean that my existence and all of human history is utterly meaningless?”, and then Barney’s going to do something like rhyme “abject despair” with “a fun day at the fair” to the tune of Pop Goes the Weasel and just annoy me further.

But anyway.

Back then death used to be this thing too dreadful to think about. Something so profoundly depressing that I rushed the thought from my mind whenever it came up — and certainly not anything I wanted my kids to think much about. So it was one of the most wonderful moments of my conversion when it occurred to me that if all this stuff that I had come to believe on an intellectual level was really true…then…death isn’t something to fear anymore. You’d have to be a convert from atheism to understand how it feels when you first realize that.

And although I’m sure it will be a difficult, painful thing to work through when we experience the shock of losing someone close to us, death as a general concept is not something that it even occurred to me to shy away from since my conversion. My take on is something like, “Yeah, we all die, and that’s kind of freaky when you first think about it, but I have some really, really good news for you on that matter…”

But I can’t help but wonder if I’m missing something. Am I too nonchalant about all this with my kids? How do you all approach the topic in your family?

23 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    I try to be very honest about it – have had to be considering the number of fish that die in our care!! Seriously, though, I just explain that every living thing will die eventually, and that we really hope that we will be in heaven with Jesus when we die.

    My uncle died in NY last September (we are in FL), and I had to take both of my boys with me to the funeral. My 2.5yo (at the time) really didn’t get it – wanted to keep saying “hi” to my uncle, going over to see him, etc. My 5yo had a little better understanding of it (not much more but better) and would join me when I invited him to pray for my uncle (he prayed for him for a LONG time afterward, too, which I liked). I explained that my uncle’s blood got very sick and his body just couldn’t fight anymore, that we really miss him but we hope that he is very happy now living with Jesus.

    A few Christmases ago, my husband’s paternal grama and maternal grampa died within a day of each other. The kids and I weren’t at those funerals. My younger son was oblivious to all the goings-on at the time, but my older son had questions. I tried to make it as non-scary as possible when explaining and always tried to include “living with Jesus” and the joy that that would be.

    For me, the hardest part has been making my 5yo old understand different reasons why people die – sickness, old age, etc. After the great grandparents died, I think he worried about getting older because we mentioned that the g-grandparents were old. He didn’t want to get older because he thought that would mean he would die. We did our best to reassure him and again say that wouldn’t it be great to see Jesus?

    Death still comes up – it just did again this evening! – but I figure honesty is the best policy. Just age-appropriate honesty. I think I really just need to take a minute before such discussions to ask the Holy Spirit for wisdom. It’s a hard topic (and a wordy one for me!! sorry for the long reply!)

    — Bridget

  2. Sarah

    Jen,

    Nope, I think you’ve got it right, again!;) I terrified my little brother (six years younger) when we were little. I kept going on and on about the book of Revelation (he asked!;)). I think that certain details might need to be adjusted in order to be age appropriate, but you *have* to teach your kids about death.

    My kids love bugs to death…literally, and then don’t understand why they won’t play anymore. I’ve used the same approach that you described with them. If you describe it as serious but natural, they’ll receive it as serious but natural. If you’re freaked out and sad, they’ll be freaked out and sad.

    BTW, I got goose bumps reading this post. How cool that death can go from terrifying to hopeful in just two short years! God is soo good!

  3. La gallina

    The LAST thing I needed was to find yet another great Catholic blog. Especially right now in the middle of the night when the kids are actually asleep and I could be sleeping too, if it weren’t for YOU! But I’ve been reading lots of your recent and previous posts, and, wow. I know exactly how you feel… Thanks for all your insights and letting us hear all about it.

  4. beez

    Jen –

    Again, I have no kids, but I don’t think you were in any way wrong about addressing this with your son. I don’t know how old he is, but I know that my Grandmother died when I was 2 and a half. I know I was told that she died, but I have no memory of it. What I do know is that I always understood the “concept” of death, and that’s not a bad thing.

    It’s always been that way in my family because there is always a conversation about someone who has died. We remember them fondly, but since my family hasn’t been without someone under the age of 10 since, of, 1951, there is always someone who ends up asking, “who is that?”

    I guess the best way of describing the whole thing is a story from five years ago. My nephew (not 11) was upset because his Dad (my brother) was leaving one morning. My Mother had just died two days ago, and Ditty needed to come join his siblings in sorting through Mom’s stuff.

    “Where are you going?” his son asked.

    “I’m going over the Grandmother’s house,” he replied.

    “Grandmother’s house? Grandmother is dead.”

    He wasn’t being snide, rude or funny. He was just being matter of fact, at six. He seemed to understand, at six, that his Grandmother wasn’t here anymore, she had no further need of a “house.”

    My Mom was sick for less than six months. In the five and a half years before she died, she was the one family member he saw more than anyone else (not withstanding his own parents and half-sister.) But, now she was dead, she was gone and he understood that he wouldn’t be seeing her in this world again.

    But, even at six, he wasn’t too distressed, it was a matter of fact. He’s since lost his maternal grandfather (his paternal grandfather having died two years before he was born), and that went ok for him too.

    I don’t know, but maybe when you have two generations of a family running from age 56 to 5, you just lack the luxury of “saving” death until someone is “old enough.” Or maybe, when you have a family with firm faith, maybe you don’t even need to fear death.

    Maybe? Who am I kidding? With God, death is nothing to fear at all.

  5. 4andcounting

    Like other commenters, I think you did a fine job. We lost three grandparents last year and a good friend lost a child at birth. We have had more death discussions than I would like, but I don’t get to choose.

    We have handled it much the same way–so and so was sick and died and now they have gone to be with Jesus. Of course, we realize as they get older we will have to talk much more about heaven, hell and purgatory, but for 5 and under, we think going with the heaven route for now is fine. We emphasize God’s love for his creation. We tell them it is okay to be sad that someone died, and that we should pray for them in death as well as life. They have accepted it and moved on.

    Now, one thing to realize about kids this age, is they might ask about these people at a later time, not truly understanding that death is permanent. Also, they will just blurt out that someone died when their name comes up. That’s okay–it is part of a child’s acceptance of it.

    As for animals, we just say they died. We don’t talk about where they might be going or not going. Just that they are not alive anymore. Since we haven’t had any pets this has not been an issue, but I can see that being a more difficult issue if there is a family pet.

    Your joy and hope are beautiful to witness!

  6. Anonymous

    Jen — I was going to say something similar to Sarah: kids are like sponges when it comes to adults’ attitudes about things. Having subjects in a family about which one *never* speaks is a great recipe for building up anxiety in kids that wouldn’t necessarily be there otherwise. Kids growing up on farms that are faced with death every day look pretty well-adjusted to me, on the whole…

    But probably the best test for you is, how did your son take your explanation?

  7. Jill

    When we learned my mother was dying, all of her children came home to be with her and each other in our childhood home. Grandchildren too from 22 to 5 months were there, talking with her, playing outside. It was very natural and beautiful. The younger ones were told her body died but her soul is alive and in heaven with Jesus. I told the story on my blogs

    My mother is dying http://www.estatevaults.com/bol/archives/2007/05/31/my_mother_is_dy.html
    A beautiful death http://www.estatevaults.com/bol/archives/2007/06/26/a_beautiful_dea.html
    Eulogy for my mother. http://www.estatevaults.com/lm/archives/2007/06/26/eulogy_for_my_m.html.

  8. Milehimama

    We are very matter of fact about it – after all, one of the first questions in the Catechism is “Why did God make you?”
    “God made me to know Him, love Him, and serve Him in this life so we may be happy with Him in the next”.

    From the very earliest, we tell our kids that God made us for Heaven… this is just a temporary life. We go through “our bodies get sick and die, but our soul lasts forever. That’s why you have to take very good care of it”.

    When I was 5, my newborn sister died. My mother always told us she was in Heaven waiting to welcome us. I think it goes with the Communion of Saints – instead of ‘dead bodies being scary’, Catholics have friends in Heaven.

    We just went through this again last week when the cat died. No big deal… but my husband ALSO just got around to spreading his mother’s ashes (she died in 2003) and I didn’t tell the kids about that. Choose what details you get into based on age and maturity. That’s why YOU are the Mom.

    Mama Says

  9. marc

    It is a wonderful thing that we don’t need to fear death once we’ve come to know Jesus.

    But I do always remember the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus knew what was going to happen, he knew that Lazarus would die and would be raised again. Yet when he came to the tomb and saw the mourners crying, what did he do?

    Yeah. Jesus wept.

    And if you dig into the word used for “wept”, it doesn’t mean one little tear rolling down a cheek. Jesus wailed and cried and felt compassion for the people. And I believe that in that weeping, He was also feeling rage against the works of the devil, as He thought of all the souls that were lost and were going to be lost because they would be deceived and death would not be a release into joy but into eternal suffering.

    We’re not really supposed to die. God has made it so that it’s ok…but we know, deep down, that we’re not supposed to die.

  10. SteveG

    I was from one of those families where death was hushed up and not spoken of. When the subject did come up, there was a palpable fear that hung over the discussion (I clearly remember that feeling).

    I recall once innocently (and a little fearfully) asking my Dad when he died some day if he would be buried or cremated, and he literally flipped (he was screaming at me-I was only about 7 or 8) and told me never to ask him such a question again.

    That attitude gave me a terribly fearful view of death until I became Catholic as well. Like Jen, I had a similar transformation of attitude. While I can’t say I love the idea of going through it, it really doesn’t hold much fear for me any longer. It’s a very liberating thing.

    Anyway, the point is that the one thing I was determined to do with my own children was let the hope of the resurrection be a real thing in their lives and not pass on that fear I’d seen as a child. I also thought it wise to let them lead the way and meet them as they asked questions and needed answers.

    When my two oldest (6 and 4) have asked me about it I’ve pretty much handled it the way you did. When my oldest finally ‘got’ what it really meant, he had some really big fears about it, and my approach was to say something like ‘I don’t want you to be afraid, and Jesus doesn’t want you to be afraid. I am not afraid. It might seem scary, but God promises that we will live forever with him and that we will even have our bodies back one day, but without all the tears, pain and sadness.’

    And more or less, he/they have picked up the attitude we are exhibiting (no surprise). Recently when our neighbors lost there first born during child-birth, we were all a bit devastated, and I was a little worried how they (especially the oldest) would react.

    I was more than a little pleased when it came up that he took it rather calmly (and sadly of course-he loves babies) and remembered what he’d been taught.

    All of this to say…I think you did a fantastic job!

    I’ll go further and say that how you handled it probably had a deeper impact than you realize. I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere down deep it struck your mom and her friend as well.

    People are so hungry for hope, and so fearful of death, that those who truly live in the hope and the resurrection of Jesus Christ can’t help but make an impression.

    I don’t wonder if that episode wasn’t as much for the two of them as for your little one.

  11. Christine

    Ya done good, kid. 🙂 And I think I might write something about a discussion I had with Little Girl when we were talking about sin during religion classes. Heck, if I’m going to ramble, might as well ramble back at my place. 😉

  12. yofed

    I actually had that problem a little while ago, last week I think. My husband had been away for a while and let our son watch Stargate… My 3 year old son know that animal dies, but had no idea about human. So when he saw the old man, he asked “Why is the old man going to sleep”… Of course, there was that awkward silence, and I answered “Well, that old man was very very old, and his body could not keep up, so it shut down and he died. People die when they are very old or have accidents (reminder to be careful!)”… I avoided the “when people get sick” because I don’t want him to freak out everytime someone is sick!

    So he asked what would happen to the old man. I really didn’t know what to answer, but my man took over “The old man’s soul is going to go to heaven where he is going to meet God”. THAT baffled me, since my man refuses to go to church, but I was so grateful for it!

    Now my boy keeps asking things like “Where are your mommy and daddy? Are they old? Are they dying?”… but he’ll get over it! 🙂

    Thanks for posting on subjects that are pertinent to my life! I love to read I’m not the only one going through these things!

  13. melanieb

    Jen,
    I think you handled it perfectly. If you treat death as a natural part of life, then so will your kids.

    At one, my daughter is too young to ask questions and understand about death yet. But every night when we put her to bed we say prayers, asking God to bless everyone in our family. We always include “baby Francis,” the baby I miscarried. So my hope is she’ll grow up knowing she has a younger sibling who is dead, who is with Jesus.

    My sister-in-law has had three miscarriages, one after each of the pregnancies she carried to term. And so each of her children (6, 4, and 2) has “their” baby in heaven that they pray for and who they hope watches over them. For them it’s a very matter-ofo0fact thing.

    I remember when we were kids our dog died. My mom simply told us when we came home from school that she’d been old and sick and had died. My brother, who was maybe six at the time, chimed in with “George died too.” My mom was a bit concerned, who was George. “George Washington. He died too.” We still laugh over that one. But it shows him coming to terms with death on the level he could grasp.

  14. Martin

    Death was never a subject we shied away from with our children. We didn’t even think about it. It wasn’t our intent to introduce them to the subject of “death” at some particular age …. “Now children, you need to learn about what death means.” ….. it was more a result of us finding some animal dead or killing a bug when they were each very young. It was just one of those facts of life that they learned .. like fire is hot or leaves are green.

    I really can’t see how the topic can be avoided. With our kids, it never has been a depressing subject … unless it involved someone or some pet that they knew.

  15. Jeron

    When I was about 4, I remember finding a dead bird on the front lawn. I picked it up & took it to my father who was working in the garden on the south side of the house. I said to him, “Dad, look. Mom can make him better.” I’ll never forget what happened next. Dad yelled an obscenity so loud I dropped the bird & froze. He got behind me – straddled me, really – and “walk/ran” me as fast as he could to the basement walkout, where we had a bathroom; all the while keeping my arms extended in front of me & yelling “DON’T TOUCH ANYTHING! DON’T TOUCH ANYTHING!” I cried like a baby, but I understood death for sure! (and disease). The next time I was confronted with death was my granfather’s funeral when I was 6. I remember walking up to his open casket & peeking in on tip-toe, then thinking to myself, “hm. so this is *dead*.” Then I went outside to go swinging on the Church’s playground. Death is nothing to hide from kids & is a natural part of life.

  16. Ash

    My father died in September, and we were all home with him the week and a half before his death. My then 2 year old was running around, showing PopPop toys, giving him things to make him feel better.

    We were completely honest with him, explaining that PopPop was really sick and may die. We told him that death means that the person leaves us for a while to go be with Jesus. Easter was such a joyous time for us this year, as we explained that we were celebrating Jesus’ resurrection, a resurrection which meant that one day PopPop would be with us again in the new creation.

    I wish my own parents had treated death so naturally and with so much hope. My son knows that death is a sad thing, something that happens because Jesus has not come back yet. But he also knows that PopPop isn’t gone forever; we just can’t see him right now.

    I can’t begin to tell you how many times his comments about PopPop and Jesus playing golf or Jesus coming back soon with PopPop have helped me in my grief. His little mind knows better than mine how short this mortal life is in the scope of eternity. I really will see my dad soon, and he and my son can play golf with Jesus…or perhaps something ever better 🙂

  17. beez

    yofed:

    I avoided the “when people get sick” because I don’t want him to freak out everytime someone is sick!

    I have to laugh at this because, from a very early age I can remember my mother’s reaction to our feigned illnesses: “I knew someone who had that, he was dead in a week!”

    That phrase was so ubiquitous in our house that, when I came down with the chicken pox and my mom didn’t say it, I thought I was really in trouble!

  18. Elena

    I think what one of your other commenters said about handling death naturally was a good idea.

    I had a stillborn baby in 2002 but we have his picture up with the other children. We have pictures of grandma, grandpa and other passed relatives up too. We visit our baby in the cemetary regularly and attend mass there twice a year too, so in that way death becomes a natural part of our discussion.

    On November 2 we celebrate all Soul’s Day after ALl Saints on November 1. Perhaps you could visit a cemetary then, clean up a grave site or just walk through with your kids. We also put the pitures of all the deceased relatives in one place for the month of November to remember them. Perhaps there are some rituals you might want to think of to add to your liturgical year that will make this a natural part of your family’s life.

    Great topic Jen!

  19. Jennifer F.

    Elena’s comment about visiting cemeteries reminded me of something I can’t believe I forgot to mention:

    My dad’s side of the family has been in this area since the 1850’s and has been using the same little cemetery as some of the other old families. Every year they have a “Cemetery Homecoming” (which begs the joke, “Who comes home?!”) where we have a church service and a potluck BBQ and all hang out at the cemetery for an afternoon. It’s such a hilarious concept.

    Although there was this depressing/amusing-in-retrospect dynamic of me going to these things back when I was an atheist. I just could not imagine that these people didn’t find it insanely freaky to have a social event at a cemetery. (And when my parents would inevitably show me where my plot was I would just about lose it).

    I should do a “an atheist goes to a Cemetery Homecoming” post. 🙂

  20. Michelle

    When we have faith, death is not a bad thing. Death is just a passage to the next world. Of course it is humanly painful to see our loved ones go (or even our pets) but we have hope, and that gets us through it. I know my son was exposed to death at an early age; he was 4 when his grandpa died. And he was not afraid of seeing him in his casket. He walked up, took a look, and said “well, at least his soul is in heaven”. It is no wonder that the Irish throw a big party!! The best way to deal with the hurt and pain of loosing a loved one: is praying for them.

  21. lyrl

    I remember as a young child (four?) talking to a friend and learning that her father had moved away, to a house high in the sky that her family was unable to visit, and he was never going to visit her again. How horrible!

    Even that young, my mother had somehow managed to teach me of death and I knew it was something over which people had no control (though I remember having a lot of fun laying out a timetable of my family by age and explaining to my parents the order in which everyone was going to die – I must not have gotten the ‘accidents and sickness’ part of the story yet).

    But the way my friend’s parents explained it to her, and then her to me – it sounded like her father had chosen to leave her and actively prevented her family from ever coming together again. That euphemism was so not comforting!

    As far as afterlife – none of us existed before we were born. Was that so awful? To me, returning to the that state after I die sounds rather peaceful. Not to mention that the very idea of Hell is disproportionate retribution without hope of rehabilitation and, considering the number of people who disagree on the entrance criteria or simply don’t take the entire idea seriously, isn’t even an effective deterrent. It doesn’t serve any of the purposes of punishment.

    A number of people have commented on pets and wild animals – does Christianity or Catholicism have an official doctrine on what happens to them after death? I’ve never come across any commentary on this, and would be curious to read some.

  22. Wonders for Oyarsa

    I do think looking toward a disembodied heaven as our ultimate hope is a problem with much current Christian theology, and I’m glad to see that many theologians (Catholic and otherwise, are aware of this. Our hope is in the resurrection of the body – as Christ was raised, so will we be. When we die, our bodies corrupt and our souls are cared for by God, but both body and soul await the resurrection, when creation shall be new.

    As for animals, Lyrl, I think C. S. Lewis has said some things on the subject. I actually talked some about it in an article I wrote a while back. The geist of it is that God has in mind the renewal of all creation – of which man’s redemption is the prototype. In Christ, all things will be made new, and the good things of creation (including the animals) will not be lost, but set free from their bondage to decay to share in the glory of God. It’s a rather exciting hope.

  23. Courageous Grace

    My grandfather died in early December when I was six, and I remember my mother and grandmother telling me that Opa wasn’t coming home from the hospital because his heart quit working and he died. I was sad, but accepted it. Then on Christmas day I opened the gift he had bought for me before his heart attack: a children’s bible. I knew then that everything would be okay…and I’ve still got the bible (it’s falling apart now with a rubber band around it to keep it together).

    No, I don’t think you were wrong in any way to explain death to your son like that.

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