5 TIPS FOR HELPING YOUNG CHILDREN UNDERSTAND DEATH

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It was an Indian summer afternoon in early October. The sunshine cast a golden luster on the garden in front of our house, the shadows slanting long. James had followed me out to the mailbox, both of us soaking up the pavement’s warmth through bare feet as we padded back to the front door. Suddenly — zzzzzzip! — a tiny hummingbird darted past my ear and crashed into the plate glass window next to our front door, falling to the ground in a soft cartwheel of limp wings and iridescent green plumage.

 James ran over to the dead bird before I could stop him.

 “Don’t touch that!” I screeched in full mom mode as I sprinted to catch up to him. He clasped his hands behind his back and stooped down earnestly.

 “It’s not moving! Is it hurt?” James asked, troubled by the ebony beads of the bird’s unseeing eyes staring back at him.

 I wasn’t prepared to explain death to my young son, and the moment stretched out as though I’d hit the pause button. I could see two distinct parenting paths forking out before me. If I chose one, I could lie. I could say the bird was resting, gently set it in the crooked limb of the live oak tree at the end of our deck, then bury it as soon as James went down for his nap. If I chose the other, I’d have to openly and honestly explain the unknowable to a three-year-old and handle his questions the best way I knew how.

As I searched for a pair of gardening gloves in the garage, I chose option B. I stepped back outside and walked over to where Jame was still stooping over the fallen bird, a lock of blond hair falling into his eyes.

“I see you’re noticing something different about this bird. You can tell there’s something wrong, can’t you?” I said, gently scooping up the hummingbird in my gloved hand.

James nodded his head in quiet concern.

“That’s because its body has stopped working and the thing that makes it alive – what I like to call the spirit – has left. That means it’s dead now.” I watched his face closely for any shadow of disturbance, but saw only curiosity in his furrowed brow.

“Where did its spirit go?”

“Nobody really knows for sure because you have to die to know, and everyone on earth is alive. But many people think there’s a place called heaven where spirits go to be happy, and I think that’s probably true. Should we sing him a little song while he’s on his way?”

James nodded and began singing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, and I wiped a bead of nervous sweat from my brow.

My grandmother and I, the last time I saw her.

My grandmother and I, the last time I saw her.

Coping With The Death Of A Family Member

So, for the last six months, we’ve been talking about death. Did I answer every question honestly? No. When James asked “When will I die?” I told him that he’ll likely be around 100 because it’s not quite a lie, but it’s also too far into the future for him to worry about. But he knows that everything dies and that it’s sad because it means saying goodbye.  

What I hadn’t counted on – likely because I didn’t like to think about it – was that my grandmother would pass before his understanding matured any further.  This was the reality I faced this week when she passed in her sleep at almost 94 years old. 

On Easter Morning, I awoke to a text message from my dad urging me to call ASAP. I knew that could only mean one thing. Thankfully, I woke before James, so I had about 15 minutes to let my feelings out before he woke up. But when he came into my room for a good morning hug, I was still teary-eyed. And when he asked why I was crying, I answered honestly. 

James responded with a big frown.

“That’s so sad! Why did she die? Was she 100?” he asked as he crawled into my lap for a long, tight hug. I fudged it a little and said “yes” because he had the right idea. I also didn’t tell him that she died in her sleep, because I didn’t want him to start thinking that could happen to him. 

Later that day, I caught James looking a little down. And when I asked, he said “I’m sad about Meme,” with a little sniffle. I pulled him into my arms and reminded him that she lived a good, long life and that her spirit is happy to be in heaven, but I’m sad too because we miss her. Then I asked what he thought her spirit might be doing in heaven. Together we decided she was having a big lobster dinner, which was her favorite. That seemed to shift James’ mood, and he smiled and went back to playing.

I’m not a parenting expert, and sometimes I don’t even feel like that great of a mom, but the method and words that I chose seemed to create a safe space for sharing questions and feelings openly. So I thought it might be helpful to share what I’ve learned.

Here are 5 tips for helping young children understand death: 

  1. Be honest…within reason. James understands that death is final, and that it’s different from sleeping. But I didn’t leave any possibility of suffering, nor did I explain what happens to the body after death. Those things are just more than a kid his age can handle. For me, it’s enough that he’s starting to understand its spirituality and finality.

  2. Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know.” Kids are surprisingly comfortable with the idea that some things are just unknowable… likely because so much of their world is a mystery.  I was pleasantly surprised that James was happy to accept theory just as easily as fact.

  3.  Don’t hold back your emotions, but don’t make your child responsible for them. There have been a few times over the past few days when James has seen me cry. When he asks me why, I tell him “I’m sad about Meme.” He generally responds by saying “Yeah, me too,” and then asking questions. My goal is to make him understand that death is normal and natural, but I don’t want him to feel that it has destabilized his family structure. For that reason, I don’t ask him to comfort me. As a mom, it’s my job to be rock solid, not his.

  4.  Mention it once or twice, but don’t bring it up too much. There’s a fine line between sweeping feelings under the rug, and causing a child to worry by dwelling on things. I noticed the latter after discussing my grandmother’s death in front of James, who then began to worry that my dad and stepmom were also on death’s door. Had I known better, I would’ve had that discussion behind closed doors and not revisited the subject unless James had further questions. 

  5. Make a photo album of happy memories. Last night, James curled up in my lap and told me once again that he was sad about Meme. I responded by saying that I understood and was sad too, but we should also think about how lucky we were to have her for as long as we did. Then I busted out my iPhone and showed him photos of her touching my belly when I was pregnant with him, cuddling him as a baby, and smiling as he played trucks at a family barbecue. It brought both of us such joy to remember her as happy and vibrant!

    Truthfully, I don’t know who it helped more. 


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In loving memory of Suzanne DeGennaro May 16, 1925 – April 20, 2019