To Avoid or Not – Teaching About Death

For many, death is the scariest part of life. It’s not often discussed openly, making it more difficult for people to deal with when it does inevitably strike a loved one. It’s grim, it’s frightening, and there are tons of emotions tied to it, so it’s best just to not talk about it. Right?

Wrong. At least, I think it’s wrong to avoid it. For my family, it was an early fact-of-life lesson. Our dad passed away after a long battle with an aggressive skin cancer in 1986, leaving a wife and four kids broken. I was just shy of four years old, and while I was told what happened, I wish I had been given a better understanding behind it. It wasn’t until months later when Sesame Street taught me via Mr. Hooper’s death that I would never see him again. It was agonizing, but I finally got it.

So, the concept of loss, a general loneliness, and a premature sense of adulthood followed me through my childhood (and quite possibly my siblings, of course). But, because of it, I worked on my issues and became better able to handle the hardest points of life (eventually). I still miss the crap out of my dad and wish I’d known him better than a three-year-old can know someone, but we’re lucky for the family we have.

I decided long ago that, while my wonderfully kind stepfather would be known to Hadley as one of his true grandfathers (“Papa”), he would know and remember that my father, well, existed. Which means that I would inevitably have to discuss with him the topic of death.

And guess what. It doesn’t have to be a big deal.

Β 

Yes, our son is just over two years old. But, he’s already experienced some loss. My dear, dear grandfather passed away last year, and Had’s grandparents had to put down a beloved dog that used to greet and play with him everyday.

We visited my grandfather regularly, so the night that I drove home from the hospital after witnessing his last breath, I knew I’d have to explain it. At age 7, I was in a tonsillectomy-induced stupor when my great aunt Kate had passed. While my mother insists she told me when it happened, the following summer I asked about it and was shut down immediately. It stung. I didn’t want a repeat when one day, out of the blue, Hadley starts asking about “Mama Gampa.” (My grandpa.) Β 

The first thing to remember, whether you’re just talking about the general concept of death or a particular person or pet, is to keep it simple. Like, stupid simple. I’ve come to learn that over-talking anything is an easy way to have a kid zone you out and not understand. Hmph. Maybe I should stop over-explaining stuff for you guys when blogging. πŸ˜‰

I told him in two short sentences, tops. I first made sure he remembered the proper individual I was talking about, then explained that Grandpa had gotten sick and had to go away. Watching it sink in, his head slowly nodding, I then told him that we wouldn’t be seeing him again, but that we can always enjoy the memories we made with him. He totally got it, and even told me he was sorry for ME. Talk about tears — but, that’s actually another important point…

Crying is totally okay. This is more for the grown-ups than the kids, but regardless, it’s important for everyone to remember it. We had family cry sessions after Dad passed away, but it eventually became a very private thing to do. I still cry about him (and Grandpa, actually, who was more than a second father); it’s not a loss you ever get over, nor should one have to, but how we deal with the feelings is what’s important.

So, when I explained to Hadley what had happened with Grandpa, or talk to him about Dad, or when I told him that his poor grandmother had to put down Dawg, I was tearful, openly. I didn’t try to hide it. It was part of the lesson. YES. DEATH IS SAD, AND THAT’S NORMAL AND OKAY.

Kids get it.
They’re more astute about others’ emotions at times than we are as adults. It’s best to respect them enough to be open with the facts and open with those emotions.

Speaking of kids totally being aware, here’s where things get creepy. We’re not super religious. Hadman thinks a cross is the letter “T” (I’m equally embarrassed and proud about that — letter recognition, y’know). But, both times I spoke with him about the deaths were at bedtime, in his crib, in a dark room when he was calming down for the day. Both times, he pointed over my shoulder as if he saw something…or someone. He barked when Dawg was put down. He talked to Grandpa when he passed. “Hi, Gampa! Hi, Gampa!” Both terrifying; both somehow strangely calming.

They know and “see” better than we do sometimes. Β 

One final word of advice is to help them remember those who have passed. Pretending that the person never existed sometimes makes an individual feel like they need to do the same; that they’re not allowed to ask questions or talk about the person.

I’ve asked a lot about my dad over the years, and there were times I knew my mother wasn’t in the mood to discuss it, but she always answered my questions. Sometimes short responses; sometimes longer. Plus, his picture has always been around our house as a constant welcome reminder, and we helped out at the cemetery all the time.

The tree next to his headstone was quite young when he was buried. Over the years, I took a lot of comfort visiting to help plant new flowers and dusty millers and to clean off the stone. We’d excitedly ask for the empty plastic jug we used to fast-walk (running in a cemetery = not okay) back from the filling spigot. As a teen, I would go to the cemetery to sit at atop a large mausoleum built into a hill to enjoy the peace and feel closer to him.

Today, the tree is matured. Both of my mom’s parents have joined him, just two rows away. But, the peace is still there. So, I feel it’s important to bring Hadley there from time to time so that he realizes how normal death is and that, if he has any questions, it’s totally fine to share them.

Besides, for a stick and rock collecting boy, it makes for an awesome nature walk.

2 thoughts on “To Avoid or Not – Teaching About Death”

  1. I think this is absolutely fantastic. My mother was in the “try to hide it” camp and it was really hard for me. I wasn't allowed to attend family funerals or even to see movies where someone died. By the time I graduated from high school I'd lost three classmates (one killed by lightening at age 11 and 2 killed in a car wreck at 17), and I never got to attend any of their funerals or really ever say goodbye.

    And I LOVE the “T” thing with the cross. My brother & I were also raised without religion. There's a little cemetery in the foothills outside of Denver with a lighted cross on the side of the hill that can be seen throughout the city. I remember once as a young riding in the car at night and my brother asking “why is there a little t on the side of the mountain?” Ironically, that was the place we chose for my mother's memorial service last year.

    And I totally agree that kids “get it” about emotions much better than we give them credit for. When my Ex's daughter was only 2, she had an uncanny ability to know when I felt sad even if I tried to hide it. And the stuff with your son “seeing” your grandpa & the dog… wow. I have a friend who lost a sister in a car wreck when she was young. When my friend's son was about 3 he once said to her – totally out of the blue “Mommy, remember when I was your sister?” Wow! Neither she nor her husband believe in reincarnation nor had they ever talked about her sister's death with their son. Pretty wild!

  2. Thanks for your thoughts! I'm glad you like the post. πŸ™‚ Funny thing is, although I was essentially obsessed with death, I didn't go to a funeral again until I was a senior — and I had a breakdown over it. :- The only way to handle things is to face them head on, I feel.

    The jury's still out on whether or not to “go with God”, but that's a whole other topic. πŸ˜‰ The irony that it's where your mom's memorial service was. <3

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