Family Time | On Death and Dying
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On Death and Dying

how to talk to kids about death

On Death and Dying

“When will I die, Mom?”

A thousand thoughts at once flew through my head. I was driving Daniel and Henry back from the playground when he hit me with that one.

I wouldn’t say he’s preoccupied with the topic, but his curiosity peaks up every now and again. I wrote down something he said back in February, after I yelled at him for standing on a chair, worried he’d fall:

“If I fell off the chair I would be hurt. Or die. Like Papa John. When did he die? How about we send him a message. We can write him a letter and put it in the box outside and Sandy (our mail carrier) can come and take it to heaven for him. And the message will say I love you, Can we come to heaven?”

I love the way he thinks. When his great Aunt Sandy died in November, we sent up paper lanterns. Unsolicited, he wrote a note on his for her. He was so excited to see it launch, and told us that it was going up to heaven to her.

I grew up very sheltered from tough stuff, because I was very emotionally sensitive, and the real world hit me like a ton of bricks when I finally was exposed to it, which is why I’m consciously trying to give Henry a healthy attitude about death early on.

I like the way farm kids have an acceptance of the circle of life, and so I’ve tried not to shield Henry from mortality. When our favorite squirrel Shorty was run over, we scooped him out of the road and gave him a proper burial. Henry occasionally says, “I wonder how he’s doing down there.”

To this day, the things I do revolve around a fear of death. I’m embarking on an overwhelming genealogy project with my dad’s cousin Ruthann, with a pay-it-forward hope that my great-great-grandchildren will give a damn about my life’s details, even if it’s just to know the date of my birthday and what my parents’ names were. And though our lives are stressed with two, I am pushing Cory to consider a third child, to increase the odds that one of our kids will care about this stuff, and I won’t just be some anonymous gravestone somewhere. I try to make a difference in my community because I want my life to matter. I can’t bear the thought of leaving nothing behind.

My mom didn’t let me read Bridge to Terabithia as a kid, thinking I couldn’t handle it. She still tries to hide things from me, to protect me.

Six plus years ago, I asked her how my grandfather Papa John was, and she said, well, they found a mass. I pushed. A mass of what? Is it cancer? It’s… a mass. Is it CANCER, Ma. A mass. IS IT CANCER. Silence. MOM. Silence. It’s cancer, isn’t it. It’s cancer.

Who knows what else is going on that I don’t know about? I know she does it out of love, but it drives me crazy. So I try to shoot straight with Henry. But on the other hand, he’s three. Kid doesn’t need the weight of the world on his shoulders. So I temper it.

So did I tell him about my friends who lost their four-year-old to DIPG? Well, yes. I have. But I didn’t bring it up in this context, though it occurred to me that I might be lying when I said, “When will you die? A long, long time from now. Just stay safe, and follow the rules, and you will live to be very very old. Don’t worry about it, honey.”

“So I don’t need to worry about it?”


He seemed to accept that.

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