Thursday, January 14, 2010

On Death and Dying

How do you talk to your children about death?

The only time we've had to really touch on the subject was when our dog, Ginger, died. It was unexpected. It was the middle of the night. We went to sleep and she was fine and when the kids woke up... she was gone. Her stomach flipped and I rushed her to the emergency vet and the most humane option we had was to put her to sleep.

Teagan quickly understood what we explained- Ginger's body stopped working. We wouldn't see her anymore.

Teagan understood it more than we realized. As the months went by, she would bring Ginger up from time to time. 2 years later, she still comments on Ginger when she sees a dog similar in appearance. About a year after Ginger's passing, Teagan burst into tears in the car and, when asked why she was sad, she said she missed Ginger.

For about 2 months or so now, Teagan has been asking about Mommy dying. "When are you going to die?" "I don't want you to die." "When you die, I will miss you forever."

I have no clue where it is coming from.

I kept my involvement with the Graddy family very separated from home and conversation over the summer. I talked about it one time- she and I dropped off a meal at their home and when Teagan asked why we were doing that, I told her that their Mommy had died and lots of other mommies were doing things to help them now. She asked no questions. Had no emotional response.

But for these last few months... tender moments... when she feels loved and cared for in a special way by me... that tenderness opens up that painful, dark place and she becomes worried, scared, concerned.

Wednesday night, it was the worst response yet.

She and I are laying on her bed, the only light coming from her nightlight. We are talking and enjoying each other's company. Tell me about your day, about dancing, about school, about work, about lunch. Then she turned to me, threw an arm around my neck and started in on the death talk.

I gave the same responses we always give. And I'm feeling like I'm not finding the right answers. I can't promise that we will never die. I can't make myself lie to her that deeply. My words tend to be, "Mommy isn't dying. I'm here and with you and happy. Let's be happy that we are together and enjoying each other right now! We don't need to be sad when Mommy isn't dying!" Or sometimes I try a more validating approach, "I would be very sad, too. But you would still have so many people who love you and who take care of you."

We talk a little about God and heaven- but I don't want there to be too much confusion on that subject. I don't want her to think that there is a physical place where dead people go and continue to live without their loved ones. We touch on the subject but I'm not ready to get that deeply metaphysical with her just yet.

But last night... she was expressing deep concern about what would happen to her and Zach if Mommy and Daddy died.

So I explained it. Aunt Christy would take care of her and Zach. Plus, there would still be so many other grown ups that love them and would care for them- Grandma, Grandpa, Mimi, Pop-pop, Pastor Jennifer, Miss Lori and her teachers, Miss Lisa and so on.
She went deeper still. "I don't want to not live in my house." "Aunt Christy doesn't know about my school and where to take Zach!"

So I explained the plan. Aunt Christy would move in to our house. Aunt Christy is often present for taking to school and for picking up from school. Aunt Christy is often there to pick up Zach from daycare and knows where Lisa lives and Lisa knows Aunt Christy. Aunt Christy would take Teagan and Zach to church every Sunday. Aunt Christy would have Grandma and Grandpa and Mimi and Pop-pop and everyone else coming to visit and continue to love her and Zach.

She wasn't convinced or calmed.

I offered to call Christy. No answer. So I called Grandma. As I explained to Teagan, Grandma is well informed on our intentions. And Grandma at least got the crying stopped with what she said to Teagan.

Jeff laid with her while she fell asleep.

But I'm feeling lost and confused and I don't know what to say or what to do. She does have the type of personality that I can easily see her carrying this below the surface, a stress point. I've felt that way so many times- love is so very close to fear and intense love brings fear into realms of reality that I was previously ignorant of...

Death is a part of living. I don't fear death. Yes, I get sad when people die- but it is sadness for those left behind, for the void that can't be filled. But my faith is very strong when it comes to death. I very much know that God is there, God mourns with us, and God carries us home. Even a horrible death ends in peace.

But how do you relay any of that to an almost 5-year-old without scaring and scarring her?

And what on earth do I do when she figures out that Aunt Christy's mortality is just as at risk as ours?


Amy said...

It's hard isn't it? My 10 year old often talks fearfully about dying. I think part of it is the fear of leaving a life they really love.

I wonder if at Teagan's school they have talked about or prayed for the people in Haiti. Maybe she's seen something on the news?

I don't really have a good answer for what you should tell her. Just wanted you to know that neither Teagan nor you are alone.

mimbles said...

It's been a while since I had to deal with this one, my lot being a bit older, but I have vague memories of the "I don't want you to die Mum!" discussions.

I remember telling them that yes everyone, in fact every living thing, eventually dies, but that I was perfectly healthy with a mum AND a grandma who were still going strong and that there was no reason to think I wouldn't be around to see their grandchildren one day. They seemed to find that quite reassuring :-)

Our answer to the question of what would happen if Adam and I did die was much less detailed than yours, I just said "Grandma would look after you but the chance of that happening is tiny."

I'm always wary of triggering anxiety in my kids, David is the most vulnerable but the other two are quite prone to it too. My instinct has always been to go for a pragmatic approach, not to dwell on details too much, and always be fully open and honest in response to their direct questions (yeah, there's a fine line between those two ideas!).

We've talked about death quite a bit over the years. About bodies wearing out with old age or having something go wrong that can't be fixed and how that's just part of how life works and isn't something to be afraid of. We talk about what we and others think about what happens after death too, and why people believe the things they do. In some ways I think it's easier to explain my current beliefs than it would be to explain what I used to believe. The whole life after death thing is complicated and difficult.

As Cape Cod Turns said...

I think you are telling her the right things. I don't think you have to go all metaphysical on her (since she is 5). I have met this problem with my girls over the years. It usually rears itself while laying with them when they go to bed. All you can do is reassure her that you love her. Maybe during the day, ask her why she is thinking about it so much. There must be a book somewhere on this subject....

Mary said...

I haven't had time to read the previous posts, but have to say Ava also talks about death a lot, and my death especially. I think it's just the age, as my friends' 4yos are doing the same. I keep it light, and it usually doesn't come up for another week or so, when I again reassure her, and keep it light. It seems to work okay. I try to stick to my same script every time, to give her some consistency. I just try to keep it from seeming too dark, instead focusing on it as a natural part of life in the universe.

Kristi said...

I struggle with this as well and this just reminds me that we have no clear plan of what would happen if Bill and I were to pass away. We've talked about it, but we have never set it in stone. Death is a hard one. I remember being little and not being able to grasp it, and I worried and worried about it. I wonder if some kids at school are talking about death? Hopefully your talk last night helped.

Alison said...

Thinking back to my kid days, I think what I wanted to hear was that this is not something I had to worry about until the far distant future (which for kids is like, next year). An answer like Mimbles' "Yes, we all die, but Mommy and Daddy should be around until you're an adult and living in your own house" would have put me at ease--though I probably would have asked to hear it several times, just to be reassured.

I also think the more you're nervous/stressed about this, the less she'll trust your answers. Sometimes the adult blow-off attitude can send a signal that it's truly not worth worrying about.

Of course...every child is different!

Shell said...

What a tough subject.

Only my 5 year old has really asked about it yet. He thinks that people get really old, their bodies stop working, and they g to heaven.

When his great-grandpa died at Thanksgiving, we had the kids skip the funeral. I thought it would be too hard and I didn't know how to explain how his body was there, but he was in heaven.

I don't have a clue how to handle explaining that sometimes people die before they are really old.

hoteltuesday said...

My niece passed away when my nephew was only a few years old. He clearly didn't understand why everyone was so upset. My sister decided to talk to him about it and although I don't know that he understands completely (he'll be 5 this October), he will often point to angels and say that it's his sister.

Claudya Martinez said...

"love is so very close to fear and intense love brings fear into realms of reality that I was previously ignorant of..." You really expressed this so beautifully and articulately. Soon after my daughter was born I experienced love and fear in a way I never knew before.

Teacher Tom said...

My brother-in-law wasted away from lymphoma over the course of about 6 months. My girl Josephine was about 2 at the time and we visited him in the hospital almost every day. She saw every stage of his disease and we sat with my sister on the day he died.

Until that day, we only talked about the possibility of him living, but from the moment he died our discussions were of heaven. She told me that he went first to get things ready for us. She told me that he's in heaven playing his guitar and drinking coffee.

When she asked about me or her mother dying, I simply answered, "People die after living a long, good life. I/she hasn't lived a long life yet." This is not a lie. Speaking calmly and confidently from our intentions is never a lie.

Teagan is at exactly the age when these questions come up. It sounds like you're doing saying the right things.

Nancy C said...

Oh, this is a hard one. I think you responded so thoughtfully and in a way that respected her dignity as a person and her boundaries as a younger person.

Occasionally, my three year old brings up these ideas (thank you, Pixar's Up), and we say "Heaven" and leave it as it is.

For now.

Thank you also for following my blog. I've seen your name around and have been meaning to check your space out.

Unknown said...


As you know 2009 was a year of much loss for us. First on 2/24 my nephew was killed in Afghanistan. Then, suddenly, on 7/4, my Mom passed away very unexpectedly.

These two deaths, in such close proximity, have caused both kids to question death, dying, and what happens.

The interesting thing is that kids (from what I've seen) deal with it much more matter-of-factly than we do. They ask a question, ponder the answer, and then tend to move on. Drake asked a lot of questions. Avery just seemed to observe it all and then on occasion she will just pop out either a question or a statement.

Honestly, I think kids are more open to the whole situation. Someone told my niece that kids can see those that have passed easier than adults because they deal with the sorrow much quicker than we do. Avery has often pointed out Schuyler or my Mom and there's nothing that I can see.

One thing that my help Teagan is to offer this thought...even when someone dies, they continue to look over us and guide us. So, you plan on being here to watch Teagan and Zach grow up and have families of their own, as you and Jeff's parents have. I often used that parents are still here, and I'm a grown up, so God willing, I'll be here to play with your kids and be a grandma!

The thought that those who are gone as still with us and watching over us has been comforting to my kids, and to me! I talk to my Mom and Schuyler on occasion and my kids know this. I would hope that it gives them some comfort to know that I still feel those two watching over and guiding me, as I would do for my own kids should I leave them before they're grown.

Mrs4444 said...

Tough questions. I think your answers are perfect. There is little else you can do.

Jared Porter said...

Liz, this blog entry is included in the February 2010 edition of Palliative Care Grand Rounds, hosted this month by the Alive Hospice Blog. PCGR is a monthly round-up of compelling blog entries about hospice and palliative care and grief matters.


Thank you for sharing such a poignant story that we can all relate to. Sometimes, even if we can't find answers, it helps to know that others are going through the same experiences. Thank you for that.