Let Them See You Cry: Talking to children about death

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I was born when my parents were very young, which gave me the most incredible gift of knowing three generations of grandparents on BOTH sides – all four grandparents, seven great-grandparents, and two great-great-grandmothers. I don’t remember my great-great-grandmothers passing away. I think I was 9 when my great-grandmother, Ruth, died. She had been sick, and I remember my mom telling me through tears that she was at peace now. That really resonated with me. Death wasn’t just sad. Death could bring peace.

Since my oldest son, Calvin, was born in 2009, we have mourned the death of one of my great-grandfathers, my father-in-law, one of my great-grandmothers, my paternal grandmother, two cats, two dogs, and now most recently, my mom’s father. With each death came lots of sadness, of course, and questions. So many questions. Some were easy to explain.
Gram was very old and lived a long, happy life.
Papa Jack had cancer that made his body sick. His body is not hurting anymore.

We had to put our beloved family dog down in October, 2012 – just three months after Nic’s father passed away. Calvin was 3.5, Lucy was just a month shy of 2, and Eamon was 3 months old. We told Calvin, “Shadow is a good dog, but his body is not working and the doctors are going to help his soul go to heaven.” Without missing a beat, Calvin responded, “We have to do a life party just like Papa Jack’s.” So we did. We invited some of our friends and family. We brought paper and crayons and everyone drew pictures of Shadow for us to keep. Calvin sang his rendition of Cat Stevens’ Moonshadow for everyone and told them Shadow was named after that song.  It was perfect. And it was then that Nic and I knew that the kids understood it. We were saying goodbye.  Honoring our loved one. We were sad, and that was okay – good even. Winnie the Pooh was right “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”

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I’ve shared before about my grandmother, Honey to her friends, Nanny to her grands. She was spectacular. Nanny was diagnosed with Multiple System Atrophy and her health declined steadily over several years. I remember clearly the last day I saw her. It was at my great-grandfather’s 100th birthday party. She looked beautiful but frail in her yellow shirt.  Rocco wouldn’t leave her side, and she loved it. When it was time for her to head home, my sisters, my dad, and I all took our turns hugging her in the driveway.  When she was safely in the car, we all hugged each other and began to cry. Since none of us live nearby in Connecticut, we were nearly certain we were saying our final farewell. 

The call came less than a month later in June 2019. Telling our kids was brutal. The sadness overwhelmed us all. Nanny was the matriarch of the family. She was generous and funny and the most fun kind of sneaky.  Even though we lived far away, my kids knew her, loved her, and knew how much she loved them. Nanny died. Hardest words ever – even still. And then Calvin, through his tears said, “I am so sad, Mom, but her body isn’t hurting anymore.” 

Like we do with everything, we are very open with the kids about sickness and death.  We answer the questions they ask as honestly and age-appropriately as we can. Kids can handle more than we tend to expect. If a friend or family member is nearing the end of life – either in sickness or simply old age – tell your kids. It will give them a chance to savor the time they spend with them. Maybe that appreciation will come later, but they will be grateful for it. Calvin still talks about visiting my great-grandmother while she was receiving Hospice Care at home. The house was packed with family all sharing stories, laughing and crying together. Calvin was a month shy of his 5th birthday when Gram passed away.  

We believe that when someone dies, their body stops working and their spirit/soul lives on forever in heaven, and it’s our job to keep their memory alive here on earth. We talk a lot about the family members we’ve lost – human, canine, and feline alike. The kids like to consider what their loved ones may be doing.  Our cat, Simon, passed away at the ripe old age of 20. The kids are certain that he hangs with Papa Jack regularly. Nanny spends time with her brother, Mickey, who died when my dad was a teenager because she’s missed him and they have lots to catch up on. Our dog, Rhoda, passed away last October. The kids are convinced she has somehow become friends with Shadow and they play together. I know that my grandchildren will hear stories about my parents, grandparents, and even their parents.

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My great-grandfather [my dad’s paternal grandfather] will turn 102 in May. He is (finally) slowing down. His spirit and wit are still there and the stories of days passed still flow. He knows he’s fading and he’s at peace with it. On a recent visit, my dad told him he wished he could have a front row seat at Gramp’s reunion with Gram. Gramp replied, “It will be quite a show.”  

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Earlier this month, my maternal grandfather passed away following a very brief battle with cancer.  His death was a shock to us, and to be honest, it’s still sinking in. The kids were mad. Calvin said, “Whenever someone we love goes to the hospital, they die.” Last week we traveled to Rhode Island for Grampa’s funeral. Rocco had lots of thoughts: Is Grampa in that box? Why does it go in the ground? and I am sorry you’re sad, Mom. I can hug you. It was a hard day, but as they always have, the kids focused on the positive.  I’m so sad, but I’m glad Grampa isn’t suffering. and I am going to miss Grampa. He loved us so much.  From the mouths of babes, as they say.  

Let them see your emotions. Let them see you cry.  Let them see your anger, relief, sadness. Let them comfort you while you comfort them.  

2 thoughts on “Let Them See You Cry: Talking to children about death”

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