Talking to Your Kids About Death, Part II

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.

The Jimmy Fund


When Talking to Your Child About Death

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.

Grief, Religion, and Other Unmentionables

I had a friend that for about 7 years that I spoke to daily, and though (as geeky as this sounds) we had only known each other from playing a game together, he was a very cherished friend and a big part of my life. I posted a while back about his death, 6 months to be exact. Normally when someone I knew passed away, it was just a person that died and that was that. My husband, always remarked my terrible habit of never actually grieving. What was grief? It was just being sad that someone passed. What good would that do? Someone died, and that was that. I’m far to analytical to think any more of it than that. You go to a wake, you go to the church service, you stand around a coffin in the middle of thousands of coffins already in the ground, and then you go to some reception afterwards and eat and forget the whole thing happened. That’s what happens. Then they are put in the ground or burned to ashes, and that is what happens when you die.

I don’t think I need religion to be a good person, though some would argue that I’m not even a good person and I might actually agree with that fact. People try to console one another when someone dies: God made a choice to make an angel because they were such a good person and he needed him. First of all, who are we to assume that God is a “he” or even a “she”? We shouldn’t put a pronoun to this notion because God is an ideal first and foremost not a person. If you are religious, you would believe that God created people and how could he have created people if he was a person already? Wasn’t Adam the first person? Therefore God is not a “he” or a “she” because that applies to mammals and other creatures with gender which was also said to be created by God. Tangent on God = ended. This isn’t to discount people who have faith, I just can’t get behind things that I can’t find logical. (Don’t worry, I nail Atheists too.)

If God was so attentive to pick a loved one to be an angel to help up in Heaven, why isn’t he attentive enough to stop a toddler for being murder by some punk kid? If God was going to take an innocent child, shouldn’t it be done in a less horrific way? Fine, that’s only one child and that God can’t be everywhere at once. What about mass genocide? I’m supposed to believe that a loved one was taken from me because it was in some greater plan but genocide is some horrific act that can’t be stopped? There’s no comfort in any of that for me.

And so religious people do not feel attacked (and I hope that people don’t assume that I’m someone misguided by grief, that would assume that I went through a grieving process, I assure you that I unfortunately did not and probably would feel better if I had), I actually dislike that National Association of Atheists more not organized religion. I’m a non-believer and that’s my choice as it is yours to believe. I actually admire you for having the ability to trust in something so intangible. I don’t even mind atheists but as a principle, I have a problem with this group claiming atheism. Atheists are people who argue whether or not a God exists, not feign offense at a cross  in legal battles. Atheism, in this form, is no better than religions that place their beliefs above others. That’s not atheism and it makes you no better than those Westboro Baptists that do things for the sake of free publicity and sue people to fund their idiocy. Atheists also don’t agree with organized groups based around religion, and as a result their being a group of Atheists fighting for a cause with a leader is in itself hypocritical since if your main platform is a non-belief in religion based groups you are still a group based upon a religion. A lack of religion, sure but it still involves religion. Moral of the story: You can be a non-believer without being an asshole. If someone wants a cross up, let them fucking have it. No one tells you that you can’t put a spaghetti monster shrine up, don’t knock them down because you want to make the evening news.

My rant go out of hand, but it felt necessary as I wrote it. So why do people die? Because tragedy and illness exists. Because people need to because of overpopulation. Because sometimes your best friend has to die and you have to be okay with that and move on. 6 months has passed and somehow I still expect him to show up and give me some geeky speech about in-game lore or how I’m not a true geek because I have not seen Lord of the Rings or Star Wars. I still expect him to show up and let me throw ideas off of him for stories or vent about how something happened and it sucked. But he won’t, and we have to learn that you can wish it to happen and you can dream that they are in Heaven watching to make sure you get the house that you wanted or that job that you wanted or the you were saved from something because they were watching if that makes you feel better. And I sincerely hope it does.

The Medium Road

Sometimes when there’s nothing on television, I look around for something that would be interesting enough to inspire a post. I ended up watching TLC reality television. I know everyone else was watching The Walking Dead, but I’m one of the few people I know that hasn’t really jumped aboard the zombie apocalypse train. In fact, my desire to run in a Zombie 5k has more to do with the twist it puts on a 5k than the actual zombies. I’d probably do a Killer Clown run even though I’m terrified of them just for the same principle.

I ended up watching an hour of Long Island Medium. It wasn’t my first time mindlessly watching this show. A week or so ago I watched when she had a Jonestown survivor on, though I only watched because I was in awe of her story more than the whole medium thing. I’m not sold on it, probably because of my outspoken stance on the afterlife. The survivor’s story both captivated me enough to research it, but horrified me enough that I never wanted to hear about it again.

As I was watching her last night, I still could only think I was watching a female Patrick Jane. Everything she did mirrored all the tricks he utilizes on The Mentalist to solve the crimes. I love that show, so I continued on and watched both episodes. I became conflicted while watching, not because I was buying what she was selling but because I was seeing the show in a very different light than they probably want us to. I found myself respecting what she does.

She’s offering a probably very expensive service and helping to provide for her family and put her kids through college. I respect the fact that she created this business that seems to be very successful. This isn’t the only reason I respect her. I don’t view her as some conniving wretched woman that’s taking advantage of the bereaved, quite the opposite. I actually think she’s helping provide people with a closure that they need to overcome grief and move on with their lives. I don’t think that’s any different than visiting a therapist; just because they accept massive amounts of money for their services doesn’t mean they don’t have a pure heart that wants to help others.

It’s a big leap that I’m making, I know that. I don’t normally assume one has good intentions, in fact I generally assume the worst in them because that’s what I’ve mostly seen. I consider my feelings as a healthy mistrust of people, which I consider is an asset rather than a flaw. I could be wrong, and  I’m okay with that. It’s all speculation because I don’t know her and I don’t know if there’s an afterlife to be a medium for. Life, I guess, is all speculation.

Allow Me An Indulgence

I’ve been saying this a lot lately, as I’m just about 15 lbs from my weight loss goal and I want to have things I refused since September. This isn’t about food cravings I want to give into. This is about how this blog is probably my most personal one I’ve ever written. So I request that I’m allowed to indulge myself emotionally here, or at least as emotionally as I allow myself to get. Also, forgive my morbidity for discussing death again.

I would say that I don’t recall the first and last time I’ve cried over a death, but that’s a lie. I remember exactly when that was. I would say that I’ve never cried over a death, to save face and deny what might be considered a weakness by some and strength by another. That would also be a lie. The first and last death I had cried over was when I was in high school and I found out my cousin was dead under tragic circumstances. I remember being in the church next to my oldest brother and during the Catholic mass bursting out into uncontrollable sobs. As we were exiting the church, my father told me I needed to be strong for my mother. I nodded and accepted this role.

I never cried over a death after that moment. I’m not sure if my tears were as a result of the suddenness of his passing or if I felt that I needed to be devoid of emotions for a show of strength so I ignore my grief to be strong for everyone else. I remember when my aunt passed from cancer, I went out and made sure everyone had clothes for the wake and funeral and hemmed them so they fit. Each death, I preoccupied myself with everything but the fact I should be in mourning. My husband insists that one day this will catch up to me. He’s probably right.

Today I found out someone I held very dearly had passed away. As silly as it seems since I only knew him from online, but he was a person and a really good one at that. I’ve known him about 7 years and whenever there was something crappy going on, I know that I could count on him. He was a goofy and innocent person on the inside that would give anything for friends, and he viewed most people he was in contact with as friends. He had been through a lot and jumped some pretty big hurdles and finally the last one caught him. I’m glad that he doesn’t have to really suffer anymore, but things will definitely be different without him around.

I wish I believed in an afterlife during moments like this so I could believe he’s gaming up in Heaven or that he was watching over his loved ones. Or maybe even riding one of his 200 plus mounts he acquired in the afterlife. But I am certain that he would be happy to know that he touched everyone he encountered. I can say with every bit of confidence that he was one of my best friends and I will miss him. I hope for him that there is something on the other side and he is enjoying it, because I think I’ll imagine that with a smile.

The Thing With Death…

I don’t know if it’s the fact that my first novel was death related or if everything seems to revolve around death these days, but I have been thinking about this topic lately. Not really of my own mortality, though I’ve lived through enough death to have a morbid acceptance that my number could easily be up at any moment. I’m oddly okay with this very fact and choose to live my life so that my children learn at least one thing of value each day. My legacy will be making sure that I have given my children the confidence to succeed in life as useful members of society and enough empathy to use that success to make a meaningful difference in this world.

That is all for them though. I don’t believe that after I die that I would be able to look down on them with pride. I try to pretend I believe it because it makes other people feel better, but I have a very difficult time with it. I don’t believe that there’s an afterlife. Maybe I’m a pessimist, but I just think that you die and decompose and that’s that. I toyed around with the idea of reincarnation, but I can’t get behind that either.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t try to talk to someone who has passed, just to see what happens. This doesn’t even mean I don’t bow down in front of the casket and say a prayer like I had been taught when I was younger. I go through the Catholic Masses after like I am supposed to. This doesn’t mean when I was pregnant, I didn’t visit my Grandfather’s grave for luck or visit the chapel to say a prayer when my baby was in surgery. I do exactly what I’m supposed to at these very ritualized events in our life. But going through motions and believing are two very different things.

Funerals and wakes aren’t for the deceased, they are for the living. These rituals are for the loved ones to mourn and receive closure while their friends and acquaintances show that they are decent human beings capable of sympathy. We celebrate this by killing flowers for an obscene amount of money and filling the funeral home so it smells a little less like death and inevitability. We speak nice of the deceased, even if they had no redeemable qualities.

When I die, I want someone to talk about me and all the good, horrible or questionable things that I have ever done. I don’t want to suddenly be known as a saint out of a guise of respecting my passing because lying about me would be disrespectful to my memory, not that it would matter because I wouldn’t know. I would like to be proven wrong about this, as I have an open enough mind to consider it. But I would need to see my own proof. This doesn’t mean I look down upon those who do believe their departed loved ones look down on them, quite the opposite. I have an admiration to them because they have that hope alive within themselves to see people as souls temporarily occupying a body rather than just a composition of matter with an expiration date. Whatever you believe, there are two things for sure: we need to make every second on this place worth something and live our lives as decent people while we’re here.

I’m Sorry For Your Loss, I mean…

I consider myself a master at attending wakes and funerals. They are the few events I can maintain grace and poise and not feel completely awkward. Maybe because the guest of honor can’t really tell so there’s no pressure. I extend my condolences in a sympathetic way while nodding or hugging with sincerity. Most people do well at weddings or work holiday parties, but I can’t be normal can I?

What I haven’t quite mastered the full sincerity of my condolences. When someone dies, people say “I’m sorry for your loss”. I never understood that. Why are you sorry? Did you somehow cause the <insert natural cause here> that killed this person? Unless of course you did something that caused that person’s death, in which case I’m pretty sure something as simple as an apology isn’t really going to help the case at all. I can’t say “I’m sorry for your loss”, it doesn’t make sense to me.

So I say the usual “my condolences”. It’s simple and to the point, but nothing said seems more than hollow words. However, I found that outside of the funeral ritual, I’m awful at this idea of comforting someone. A friend of mine’s grandfather had passed away recently. He mentioned it on Facebook, saying “if you see someone with my name in the obituaries, it’s not me it’s my grandfather.” I was the first commenter and my reply was “I’d hope not, otherwise we’d be in a lot of trouble with talking zombies and no good could come of this.” It wasn’t until a mass of people followed with “I’m sorry for your loss” that I cringed at their apology and my sounding like the worst person in the world. Luckily, in seeing him over the weekend, I found that he was amused and glad for the laugh. I suppose it’d be worse if they didn’t expect that sort of comment from me.

Now I have to teach these lessons to my son. When he was in kindergarten my grandfather had passed away around Christmas time. He wanted to come to the funeral and despite my hesitations of him being too young for something like this, I agreed thinking that he could always be with my other family members in another room while I paid my respects. That wouldn’t fly with my little adult, and I had to give him a brief 5 minute lesson on what you’re supposed to do, how you’re supposed to behave and that at the end of it he was going to be kneeling down praying in front of a real dead body. Without being scared and with grace that I’ve never seen in someone his age, he did everything he was told and even used the word “condolences”. At the church, I couldn’t help but to try to fight my laughter while I watched him take a tissue like everyone in the room and dab his eyes to wipe away tears that weren’t there. He mimicked everything from the tissues to the proper Catholic church etiquette. It turns out all I had to do was give him a brief lesson and all he needed to do was take it from there. He just followed my lead, even giggling when I couldn’t contain my laughter at how silly he looked trying to mourn like everyone else. He learned the lesson of the mourning rituals, and was even more excited that he got free food out of it. Plus, he always did fancy an excuse to wear a tie.

This ties together 2 points I have made in my previous blogs. Point #1: I’m a terrible person that lacks social skills of how to behave in an acceptable manner. I could either change this or learn to accept that no one will really appreciate or accept me for this. I’m not changing, I don’t believe there is anything so wrong with me that I need an emotional soul-searching makeover. Point #2: Kids learn by example, there’s no denying that. My son didn’t know how he was supposed to behave so he behaved exactly like he saw everyone else behaved. There’s an emphasis on the “everyone else”. Children learn from everyone in a social environment and from things they see at home. Remember kids are sponges for knowledge, and unless you want an awful and inappropriate joke I’m probably a terrible person to console you.