The first time I had to discuss a death with my son, it was my aunt who had passed away. He was still young enough where he didn’t exactly comprehend it and it didn’t ultimately have an impact on him. (I want to say he was 3ish at the time?) The second time I had to discuss a death with him, it was my paternal grandfather. This time he was in Kindergarten. Still, he was too young to really understand. I asked him if he wanted to go to school, if he wanted his birth father’s family to take care of him (it was just before his Christmas break started) while I attended the funeral. I missed the wake to take care of my son. I couldn’t miss the funeral.
My son, who even still is a lot older mentally than he should be, decided he wanted to come with because it was the right thing to do. I reluctantly agreed that he could go, thinking that he was too young to be at a place like this. But I figured if he was mature enough to ask and understand what was happening, that he was able to attend. He wanted to come up to the body with me. I held his hand and we prayed together while kneeling in front of my grandfather. We attended the Catholic mass afterwards, where people were crying and remembering my grandfather. I stayed stoic, as I tend to do. Probably why I have the reputation for being “cold”. I stayed stoic until out of the corner of my eye, I noticed my son was trying to be like everyone else. He asked for a tissue, and started dabbing his dry eyes because everyone else was crying. He started forcing sniffling noises while doing it. I didn’t want to laugh during a somber mass, but I chuckled. He didn’t understand what was going on, but he knew the motions that he needed to go through and he just wanted to make sure he was doing it right.
It was a long time later when I had to tell my now older son about a death in the family. This time, it was his biological paternal grandfather, a man he maybe met twice? I remember failing at this opportunity, making a joke because that’s who I am. “Dylan, you know what sucks more than your computer dying?” Yeah, you can finish the joke. I said it. I should be ashamed of myself, I know. But you have to be me and my son to understand. He didn’t react. He didn’t even really know the guy. He was confused as to whether he should go to pay his respects, be alone among a room of people who he didn’t even really know. Ultimately, he decided that it was better for him not to go. He was 15; that was entirely his choice.
My youngest son’s school was doing a project about Veteran’s Day. We decided that it would be cute to write about my maternal grandfather, who served in the Navy and passed away when my oldest son was about 2 or 3 months old. We named our youngest after my grandfather, so we thought it would be cute for our son to learn about him. It was cute until he asked why he didn’t meet my “Grampa”. I calmly explained to him that my grandfather passed away a long time ago. “He’s dead?” I nodded. “Did he die in the war?” I explained that he died of cancer and that cancer sucks. “What happens when you die?”
I stopped. What was my approach here? What do I say to him? Do I say what I believe? That he’s just dead and there’s a body in the ground and that’s really it? I couldn’t do that. I found myself saying the words I’ve learned through all my years of Catechism. “Well, he’s in Heaven watching over us to make sure that we’re okay. He’s protecting us.” My son went on. “What’s Heaven?” I found myself getting wrapped up in a lie that I didn’t believe, as parents often do in so many situations. “Well, it’s where good people go. And your great grandfather was a very good man.” He nodded, asked a few more questions, and that was the end of the conversation. Until he kept bringing it up. “How can he protect us if he’s up in Heaven?”
I wanted to say to him “Mommy doesn’t believe in God or Heaven or angels, I just lied to you because the truth sucks”. There was no right answer here. I had to keep going with this lie to protect him. Just because I didn’t believe, doesn’t mean he doesn’t have the right to believe if he wants to. It’s a loaded topic dealing with death, especially when discussing it with your kids. I worry about the day when I have to tell them that someone they were close to died because I’m the last person I’d want to tell me if someone passed away. The last. I’ve done it before. I’m not very good at it. I blurt it out without softening the blow. I answer questions honestly. I’m brutal and cold. I admit my faults. I have no idea how I would tell my child that someone they loved died. I could barely make it through a conversation about telling them how someone they didn’t even know died. Did my child need to know that my grandfather died of cancer? Was that too much to put on him? Did I screw up my oldest by telling him the news through a joke?
I’m a mom trying to figure out this hard stuff just like everyone else. My way probably sucks and I don’t know how to fix it but it surprisingly has worked up until this point. I’m numb to the death thing and admittedly that has hardened me. My first thought it never “oh that sucks”, it’s always “okay, what needs to be done next.” I hope that I figure this out because as you can see, my gut instincts are not great here.
It is not an easy subject at all. I find comfort in knowing, that children (seem to) handle it far more “light” than we adults do; we tend to overthink a lot, where they are more straight forward at this age. I read once, that children do not fully graps the concept of “dying” before they are age 12+. That really makes you think. I try to shelter our boy too, and give more “gentle” info. Not lies, nessesarily, but nothing too brutal honest either. That time will come soon enough. Gut instincts seem to be much more fragile to doubt as a mother I feel!
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Thanks for that. I agree.
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[…] few years ago, I wrote about talking to kids about death. The only time I have ever had to talk to my kids about death is when it was someone that they […]