Parenting is hard, from finding the energy to get through the daily grind to getting them to brush their teeth. But there's been little in my years of being a mom that has been harder than trying to explain the death of a family member to children. Death is difficult, scary, and heartbreaking enough, in and of itself. It's something we don't want to think about and want desperately to shield our children from. Having to make them aware of it is difficult and overwhelming.
Explaining literally anything to a child is a crapshoot. Maybe they'll understand on some level, maybe they won't. Maybe what you're saying will interest them enough to actually hear everything you have to say, maybe it won't. Maybe they'll have an appropriate reaction... you hope. There's also a chance that they're going to become totally preoccupied with what you've told them for days, weeks, or even months. So you can see, then, how bringing up the subject of death can get a little dicey, particularly when coupled with your own discomfort and grief.
I asked other moms to share their experiences with explaining death to their children, because this is hard, and we could probably learn from one another.
"We have had several deaths in our family in the last few years. My daughter was 5 when my aunt died and we kept it simple. Aunt G was ill and died and now she is in heaven. My daughter accepted this simple response. We used this for other deaths, as well. We recently experienced the death of a newborn in our family and that was harder for her to understand. We explained what happened and how much everyone loved the baby and how it was OK to cry and feel sad. This was four months ago and she still brings up the baby often, but more to ask if my cousin, the baby's mother, is going to give the 'baby in heaven' a sibling soon."
"We have dealt with a lot of them. Our simple explanation is that their bodies just gave up."
"I fear I was too young and too sad to do a good job of [explaining my husband's death to my toddler]. She seemed to take it in stride ... [but] it wasn’t until she was grown up that I fully realized the impact her dad’s death really had on her, as well as my oblivious grief."
"Unfortunately, my kids have lost two great grandmothers who they had close relationships with. We kept it simple, too, and simply said that sometimes when you get older you can get sick and die, but that they were in heaven now. We said it was OK to be sad and cry and ask questions. We actually took both kids to my grandmother's funeral last year — they were 3 and 5 — and the 5 year old still talks about how it was nice to celebrate her life. They understood much more than I expected them to."
"My 6-year-old lost his grandfather, grandmother, and great aunt all within 14 months. I explained to him that they are now in heaven and we will get to see them someday again. He was/is OK with that. He doesn't bring them up at all. Oddly, we lost two pets (a cat and a dog) during that same time period. He talks about them all the time and how much he really misses them and will sometimes cry."
"Unfortunately we’ve been through so much in the past year. We lost my mom, suddenly, in January 2017. This led to many, many questions [from my 6-year-old], difficult conversations, and tears. My mother-in-law just passed away last week after a long illness and it’s all resurfacing again. One behavior we’re going through is 'abandonment.' She’s so afraid we’re going to leave and never come back. She sleeps with us and will not play alone. It’s going to take time and I’m considering therapy for her to have an outlet for grief. I don’t have any answers but we’re all trying to figure out life in a new way now."
"My grandfather died when [my] boys were 1 and 3. We told the kids that dead is when your body stops working, that this usually happens when you are old and worn out (sort of Velveteen Rabbit style) but that it's also possible to get sick or badly injured and die at any age. We said it's OK to be sad and miss them, and though they're gone forever we will always have our memories of them. We said pretty much the same thing when we had to put our elderly dog down last week. We're atheists, so no after life talk in our house."
"We have had a fair amount of deaths in close family members in my kids short lives. We explain death as a part of life, sometimes we expect it and sometimes we don’t. When someone dies we stop being able to see them and so we have to work to feel them and hear them. We celebrate them each year on their birthday and honor them on their yahrzeit [anniversary of death in Judaism]. We work to have the kids understand that in death the body stops but the spirit goes on in us. We always carry them with us. It helps with the sadness and the foreverness."
"In trying to explain my father's death to my children, I learned the importance of knowing your limits, particularly when you're grieving, and I let my wife do the heavy lifting. I tried so many times to start the conversation but I just couldn't be the one to say the words. [My wife] was a damn angel and told our 7- and 5-year-old that he was gone. Once she broke the news we sat together to talk about what death means and we were pretty open about the idea that we really don't know and that the idea scares us, too. We're not religious but we introduced the idea of heaven as well as the idea that you just kind of stop. We also talked about the idea that we can always keep a loved one alive in our hearts and memories and we made it clear that we were always happy to talk about how much we loved Grandpa or when we feel sad and miss him."
"My 6-year-old and I were just talking about this the other night. A grandma came to visit and [my daughter] asked where grandpa was (he passed two years ago). We are not a religious family, so we talked about how everything in the universe is made up of tiny little atoms — from people to things. And how when someone dies their atoms are just used to make new things, so people we loved and lost are everywhere. She really liked the idea and embraced it ("So, Grandpa Jimbo could be in this blanket and he's with me if I wrap myself up in it?"). We also talked about how when we think about people we loved it's like they're with us, alive in our memories. This really is an idea that gives me comfort even as an adult."
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.