We were walking through a store when my sweet daughter looked at my face and said, “Mommy, you’ll never die, right?” The lady across the aisle smiled at me when I struggled to explain, (again) to my almost seven-year-old that while my love for her will never, ever cease, our bodies do. It was when I came home and started a nightly pasttime of combing through the interwebs when I googled, “What to tell my child about death.” I couldn’t find distinctive answers. How could I explain to her the thing I was most afraid of?
Death. Passing On. Ceasing to exist. Each term of expiration made the knots in my stomach appear, while my eyes became filled with instant waterworks.. Others have accepted their fate… what was wrong with me? I live passionately and the thought of complete nothingness was truly more than I could ever imagine. I have to embrace it: I am terrified of dying. I often half-jokingly ask John, (a few times a year,) to remember to do something at my funeral. (Half because I can’t imagine him dying first, and the other half because I want to feel that I can control some element of the end of my life and its celebration.)
When I stumbled across, Order Of The Good Death, I was drawn in by Caitlin’s videos. Equally to-the-point and humorous, a woman half the nation away put me at immediate ease. I would never be the only person to escape dying. I needed to embrace my fate and find answers to give my daughter. But first, I had to try to understand my fear, first.
I emailed Caitlin and asked if she would be willing to talk some things through and help me give my daughter better answers about the only certainty in our life: our demise. Caitlin quite literally responded within minutes. I sent her questions and she sent me immediate answers. I hope the following Q&A is as helpful to you as it was to me. I can’t thank Caitlin enough for her generous time and incredible guidance about death.
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Q: As a parent, how can I best answer my child’s questions about death?
A: The best way to talk to children about death is the honest way. Everything you tell them that tries to sugar coat death and dying will come back to haunt you (no pun intended). Younger children tend to think of everything as very literal. So if you tell them “Grandpa’s sleeping” they might very well think he’s literally sleeping in his casket and is going to wake up trapped underground. So just be honest. By honest I don’t mean sensational or super detailed or full of CSI-language. Just “Grandpa is dead, which mean he’s not coming back anymore. But we can remember how much you loved him and everything he taught you.”
Q: How can I teach my child not to fear death and that dying is part of a life span?
A: I think that references to nature work very well for teaching children about death. You may or may not practice a religion, but patterns in nature are something we all experience. For instance, you could talk about the way the leaves fall off the trees every year. Those leaves die, but their little leaf bodies are actually the nutrients that allows brand new green leaves to grow every spring; it’s the same thing with human beings. Nothing is every really gone, it just goes away and comes back in different forms. They even say we have atoms from long dead stars in all of our bodies. You can tell your child that everything they’ve ever loved will always be with them that way.
Q: Speaking to my child about death really brings up my own fears about dying. What can I do to alleviate these fears? I’m terrified!
A: It’s crucial that a parent be comfortable with death because if they’re afraid they will absolutely pass that fear onto their children. Children, in their natural state, are usually very open about death. But if they learn (from your behavior) that there’s something scary and wrong about it, and they should just keep quiet, they will! To make sure you feel better about death, do research. Something is only scary if you don’t know what it is. The coat rack is only a monster when it’s in the shadows. Read books, plan what you want done with your body when you die. Have your kids decide what they want as well. You’d be very surprised at their wonderful, creative ideas.
Q: What resources are available for parents to speak to their children about death? Are there any books/videos you recommend?
A: My absolute favorite book for children is Duck, Death, and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch; it’s just beautiful. The Fall of Freddie the Leaf is another great choice, fitting with the nature-is-helpful theme.
Q: At what age is the right time to start discussing death and dying, without overwhelming my child? Is there better things to say during the toddler/preschool/schoolage and young adult years?
A: The right age to discuss death is when your child wants to discuss it. It may start very very early. You show toddlers and preschoolers Disney movies and fairytales and cartoons, and death is sure in there. They may not understand that death can be permanent so again, stick with simple honesty. “Our dog isn’t coming back, because being dead means his body is no longer working. He’s not hungry or sick anymore.” Don’t be anxious if they don’t understand, it may take repetition. Just be honest each time they ask. Once a child reaches seven or eight they’ll be able to talk more in depth about the emotional implications for them. The number one thing is that you should make it clear that it’s safe for them to ask you those questions– that you won’t be uncomfortable or evade them.
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Caitlin Doughty is a licensed mortician and founder of the Order of the Good Death, the “Ask A Mortician” webisode series. She’s also one, helluva human being to help this mom answer her kiddo’s questions about death and dying with such grace and truth. Thank you, Caitlin!