When Death Happens – How to Talk to Children About Death

I was so lucky to have grown up with not only 2 full sets of grandparents to enjoy, but some of my great parents as well. It was amazing to my friends that I could tell stories about playing cards with my great-Grammie, or going to Florida to watch my great-Grampa Chapman paint a picture of me. I have memories of my great-Grampie, tall and silvery, chasing my red-headed, freckled, demon of a brother around the parking lot of a McDonald’s. Mulitple-generations of very large, young families on both sides of the family tree provided me a unique view of the world, enormous family reunions (at the Villeneuve reunion in Cornwall, held every 4 years, families had to be colour coded because it was too hard to keep everyone straight. Our family, the Joe Villeneuve family, all 50 of us had to wear yellow TShirts, and the families of each of his 22 brothers and sisters had to wear a different colour or pattern!)

This also meant a lot of great-uncles, aunts and second cousins. And, ultimately, a lot funerals. I feel I have very healthy and open attitude towards death. I’m not saying I’m open to it coming around the corner for me prematurely, and I am not saying that the death of certain family members would not devastate me. However, I feel as though death is a natural part of life, a part of life that can be experienced, talked about, planned for and mourned, instead of avoided, feared, delayed or completely unacknowledged. Perhaps this is because I went to a lot of funerals at a young age?

I have had the unfortunate/fortunate opportunity in the passed few years to attend a lot of funerals for very close family members and friends, and it was remarked on many occasions that I was ‘so calm’ or dealing with it ‘so well’. I was even asked to speak at many of them, sometimes in lieu of someone more appropriate who just could not bring themselves to do it. Please keep in mind, I am not a robot, I am not devoid of emotion, I do cry on occasion and I do miss these wonderful people terribly.

So over the passed 8 years I have also brought 2 little bambinos in the world, and they have also experienced some of these loses with me. It was all fine and good to deal with death ‘my way’ when I was younger, but now that I am a mom, I face the dilemma and the situation of how to teach my children about death? How much of life and death should they be exposed to? I was brought up Catholic, for a while, but my parents are very open to us having our own beliefs. So, being a nerdy, scientific minded individual, I lean a bit further away from the Heaven/afterlife story than I used to. But, being open-minded, and appreciating my parents open-mindedness, what do I tell my children without pushing them in a certain thought-direction?

“Well”, I thought to myself when my grandfather died a few years ago, “here goes nothing” and continued to I dress my kids up in some fancy gear and headed out to the funeral. My thought process? I don’t want my kids to be scared of death, dying or elderly people, but I also want them to appreciate the short time we have here with each other and the crazy lovely family they have. I want them to be inquisitive and also thoughtful, so what better way than to let them experience a very confounding situation, ask a million questions, and also learn how to be compassionate, sensitive and kind to people who are mourning a loss? To date, my children have attended a few funerals, some of them open casket, and I wouldn’t change a thing. My son Marshall, 5, asked for a second viewing of a great-aunt at her open-casket wake, because he was “still wondering where she is? Is this her? What parts are real?” I believe they may have been the only children at any of the funerals. I’m sure there were people in attendance thinking “my lord, what is that woman thinking?” or “those poor children, they shouldn’t have to see this”. And I get it. That is okay. I remember when I was young I had some younger cousins that didn’t attend some of the funerals. They grew up to be well adjusted, lovely ladies, no worse for wear. So, have I made the right choice? Ah, the ultimate mommy-question… did I just scar my kids for life, or was this the defining moment on their path to greatness? I guess it remains to be seen.

great-gramma

What makes me feel good about my decision? My grandmother, Gramma, passed away very suddenly a few weeks ago. She was amazing, a truly wonderful person, and I will miss her so much. We travelled to Kingston for a ‘celebration of life’ at my parent’s house (she did not want a funeral) and my children were able to ENJOY with me a full day dedicated to telling stories and remembering Gramma, with no tears, lots of questions (probably few answers), and laughter. My daughter Abby, only 8 and 1/2 even read aloud to the group (her first time public speaking) a card my grandfather had bought my grandmother for valentine’s day in the 50s. She said to me after how wonderful it was that she could carry Gramma with her always now (she was named after her). My little guy, Marshall, said to me “wow, Gramma really had a lot of friends! She must have been nice to all of them, just like when she fixed my boo-boo on my knee”. Thoughtful- check, Sympathetic – check, Inquisitive – check. Bringing my kids to funerals = Mommy-win.

gramma

** This is by no means a scientific or prolific post, no questions will be answered, no problems solved. But death has happened, and will continue to happen around my children and this is how I have chosen to deal with it. It works, for me, and hopefully for them.

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6 comments

  1. My mother-in-law passed away suddenly this year. I have struggled so much with this. We came to the funeral but we tried to lee her focused on our family and not what was going on. We just recently started talking about heaven because her grandfather (and his new girlfriend) are coming for her birthday. I did not want her to think her grandmother was coming and then be disappointed. Wish there was a magic formula of how to handle these situations.

      • the ability to tell stories, stories that capture or rekindle the imagination and memories that we have, or stories that give us new memories. They can warm us up, take us to a happy place, give us a light inside that reminds us of those we have lost.

        we all like to hear stories that are told well, and perhaps speak to our immediate needs. a magic wand for any parent. a powerful pen for the gifted few.

        tell more stories, keep the light alive for everyone.

  2. My dad died when I was 6, so I was introduced to death far too soon in life. But the positive side of that experience was, I am very comfortable with death – talking about it, thinking about it, etc…I worked in hospice for a long time, too, which helped increase my comfort levels. All that said, I have not given a whole lot of thought about how I will talk to Evelyn about death when the time comes. You’ve given me some food for thought!

    I LOVE the “celebration of life” – so much better than a funeral. It’s so beautiful that your daughter read aloud to the group. Special little girl you have there!

    • The celebration was amazing. Great food, lots of photos out, so many friends and family. We all sat outside and told stories, read poems, sang songs. We released balloons and floating lanterns, we planted a commemorative blue spruce tree…it was very nice. No church, no service, very few tears. Lots of hugs and smiles and memories. My grandmother would have loved it.

  3. Gramma is so proud of you all. I miss her so much, and I cry too.

    I played guitar tonight, and wish I could have played for her more. Sharing your talents with others bings people together, brings smiles, and sometimes tears. Tears of sadness, tears of joy, and tears from being proud….liker I am of you …and your gang!.

    had some good news from the doctor yesterday, the problems with my hands and joints shouldn’t be from KD, …so one day of Ibuprophen and my fingers are moving… will see my GP on Thursday and get better drugs….will talk to you soon. luv /Dad

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