Talking to Your Kids about Death

Girl Child just turned 10. In summation, she is terribly afraid of death. She doesn’t understand why everyone has to die and she also does not understand why “you just close your eyes one day and only see black, for forever.”

First of all: We are secular, and we don’t teach about religion, we don’t align with organized religious groups, or any variations of a higher power. We consider ourselves “Agnostic”. “We don’t know and hey, neither do you!” The kids are at vacation bible school this week to give their soon-to-be stepmother a break, but we don’t teach it in the home. I don’t believe in teaching children about heaven in order to alleviate their fears on death by promising them something we are absolutely not certain on after death. So let’s get that out of the way.

Girl Child says to me… “I am having nightmares. A lot of them. All of them have to do with dying… and how scared I am of death.”

I remember being just like this child at her age… I have always been a chronic worrier. It has gotten dramatically better in the last 6-7 months than it has ever been before… Suffering from generalized anxiety disorder (Imagine that, an extrovert with no fear of any social situation has an anxiety disorder?!) is not a joke, it is not a crutch, it is probably the most legitimate and text-book thing I have ever experienced on an ongoing basis in my life. So, when Girl Child feels it… I feel it ten-fold.

Girl Child: “Do people sometimes choose to leave this world?”

Me: “What do you mean “leave this world”?”

Girl Child: “I mean… I just don’t want to say the word. Die…”

Me: “Sadly enough, yes, sometimes people do choose to end their lives.”

Girl Child: “You and Daddy or Drew or Heather would never choose that right?”

Me: “I cannot speak for everyone else, but I am going to venture to say that out of the four of us, none of us would choose to end our lives. That would hurt you and your brother way too much.”

Girl Child: “Yes, Ok. Good. Because I keep having nightmares where you and Daddy choose to leave.”

(I am thinking… holy shit, my kid has now figured out that death can also be a CHOICE, too! Oh my god!)

And probably for the first time in my adult life, I spoke very honestly with my ten year old… in a way that she probably wouldn’t understand yet… but soon enough she would recall this conversation and it would go into context.

Me: “I have wasted a lot of time in my life worrying about ‘What if?’… and that wasted the time I could have spent LIVING. Happy. Enjoying life. Making friends. Meeting people. Making art. Going to fun places. Laughing. All of that time was wasted because I was worrying so much about what MIGHT or MIGHT NOT happen to me… it controlled every single day of my life. I had to teach my brain to let enough of it go to enjoy my life again. Don’t worry about death. It happens to EVERYONE someday, nobody knows when…but I can promise you that if you spend a lot of time being scared or worrying about death, you’re going to miss out on some very fun times — time you cannot ever get back again, dear. Trust me.”

(She sat there staring at me in the rear view mirror that I had angled to see her little round cheeks, and blue eyes, and for one and a half moments I saw her not as this little bad ass that doesn’t take shit from anyone, who is a girl after her own mother’s heart, apple-doesn’t-fall-far-from-the-tree types…. I saw her as an innocent little girl deeply scared of her own mortality because she loves life and she loves people.) 

Girl Child: “You worried about death a lot, too?… and now you taught your brain not to be scared anymore?”

Me: “I looked at the calendar and realized how much time I wasted doing nothing but worrying.”

Silence…. I could tell she was really pondering this.

This last year, Girl Child had the first two people, that she knew in a personal way, die. She has been struggling with understanding this and the only advice I can give to other parents is to have a consistent open dialogue about it that allows your child to ask any question they want. Do not sugar coat things, speak honestly. Do not dismiss and tell them simply “Not to worry about it.” and then end the conversation (this creates more anxiety by leaving unanswered questions.). The first time someone close to me died, I was I believe…12? My great grandfather who lived with my family and I, in our multi-generational home, was crippled with Alzheimers Disease and Parkinsons Disease. I remember not feeling any sadness… because my family was suffering trying to care for him because it was not until his very final days that he went into a nursing home to be cared for. (Nobody could afford a nursing home.) My grandparents who at the time were in their fifties were buckling under the round the clock demands of caring for him and no matter how prepared you think you are to deal with the things that come out of the mouth of someone with Alzheimers. You aren’t. The disease takes over the brain and things start going missing and replaced with other strange insertions. The kitchen island was a fox hole in World War II and an ice cube that had fallen out of the freezer and shattered on the floor was “They’re dropping bombs on us, Maureen!” (Talking to my grandmother.) Along with a slew of sexual innuendos towards various women in the family because he had no clue who most of us were at that juncture. Depended on the day…. the minute…. However, when my paternal grandmother died (not the one caring for my great grandfather), far too young and in a freak accident, I became so deeply depressed… feeling robbed, incapable of grieving properly, pregnant with Girl Child, angry. Very angry. I actually experienced the full stages of grief  — that actually ended up taking many years to cycle through… back and forth through multiple stages of grief until reaching acceptance… which probably only happened in the last couple years. Hopefully, Girl Child will never have to experience death and a strong lack of closure like I did…

Ten years old… and here comes the hard stuff… 😦


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