Death and grief are notoriously awkward subjects for most adults. We are caught up in what to say and how to say it. We never know whether to point out the elephant in the room or to talk around it. Our struggle to find the right thing to say often leads us to the wrong thing to say, or even worse, to say nothing.
But it does not have to be like this with children. In a phone interview, author and counselor Bonnie Zucker reminded me that our conversations on death and dying with children don’t have to be awkward. Children do not bring all of the baggage to the conversation that adults do. They are not self-conscious, and while their questions can be blunt and difficult to answer, they say exactly what they’re thinking without any social nuance.
Kids are present, curious, and concerned, and it is our job to answer their questions with honesty.
How we told my nephew about his mom
My sister left for the hospital in the middle of the night after feeling sick for about 24 hours. In those few days between her ambulance ride and her death, we told Sam things like, “Mama is sick and she went to the hospital. The doctors are helping her. She loves you. If she’s feeling better, maybe we can visit her tomorrow.”
Our absolute worst fear was that we would learn that her cancer had returned. Instead, a reality we never considered, shattered our lives. In the early morning hours, my sister collapsed and was instantly brain dead. It was unexpected and suddenly we had to tell Sam, “Mama died. This means that her body stopped breathing and it doesn’t work anymore. We won’t…