A 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 didn’t really know much about, outside of stories I would tell. In that blog that I linked, I discussed talking to my oldest about his biological paternal grandfather dying. Otherwise, it was all abstract talk. I tell my youngest about my grandfather, his namesake. I keep my memory of him alive by telling these stories and my son likes to hear about “Grampa George”. I have never had to tell them about someone that they actually knew dying. Death was sort of abstract to them. They knew it existed and that it’s inevitable. But they never had to experience the actual feeling of true grief and figuring out how to process that.
That was until recently. A schoolmate of my youngest lost a battle that no parent should ever have to watch their child go through. How do you tell your child, especially a child with anxiety issues and has trouble processing/dealing with emotions, that someone they knew and regularly interacted with has passed? A child that’s the same age as he is? I’ve seen cancer and what it does to the people suffering from it and the people around them. It’s a slow and agonizing spirit-crushing illness. And to have to tell your child that another child they knew has passed from it isn’t something you prepare for. You prepare for the passing of their grandparents. Great grandparents. Older relatives. Not for their friends. That’s too tragic to consider, let alone plan for.
I tasked my husband with it. His personality and temperament more closely matches our youngest, which made him much better suited for the task. Plus, if you read the blog linked here, you can see that tact isn’t my strong suit and I would have made matters much worse. Part of being a parent in a partnership is that you get the ability to pick the tasks that are best suited to your skill set. My husband was a rockstar. He eased into it. “Remember your friend that was sick?” Our child responded, “Yeah, he had an illness that made his hair fall out.” My husband paused for a moment and told him the sad news. It took our son a few minutes before he realized it. “But, he’s young. Kids aren’t supposed to die. Parents are supposed to die first.” My son wasn’t wrong. “It’s sad. We talked about video games a lot.” My son seemed fine after talking about it, until it was time for bed. Then it all came back to him, as nighttime is perfect breeding ground for anxious thoughts to take over your brain. We didn’t sleep that night.
Books can tell you what they think you should know about having this conversation with your kids. But your kid is unique. I always say that you can read all of the parenting books that you want, but the problem is plans are great until you have kids. There isn’t any cookie cutter solution for dealing with life, especially life with kids. They don’t follow a rule book. When dealing with sensitive matters like death, you need to focus on the best approach for your kid. My husband is better with easing into the hard conversations, where I’m more of a “blunt, to the point” person. And I cannot stress this enough, there’s no way to plan for telling your child that a schoolmate/classmate has passed away.
After the fact, while my son was processing the news, he kept asking “Why?” The simple answer would have been (excuse the language) “Because cancer sucks. Fuck cancer.” He kept saying it wasn’t fair. It isn’t. In times like these, I revert to my Catholic-ish upbringing. “Because it was his time to be an angel.” “You can talk to him anytime because he’s up in heaven.” “Maybe your Grampa George can help take care of him now.” Even if I don’t actually believe in this, it doesn’t mean there’s no comfort for my son in hearing these things.
Talking about death with your kids is as hard as it is inevitable. It’s a delicate topic to address. I don’t think it will get any easier, but it’s important to be as open and compassionate as possible. Answer any questions in an age appropriate way. Show your support. Remind them that it sucks but how their loved one would want them to live their life anyways. That they will always be around them in their heart and memories. That grief sucks and never gets any easier. That there’s a part of you that will always be sad in some moments, but that there’s also a big life of experience that the deceased would want them to live.
Cancer sucks. But I’d like to point out a couple of my favorite causes to support, which are very close to my heart that could always use a little help.