on death of pets and other creatures

IMG_2495
About three years ago, our dog Cooper was diagnosed with cancerous tumors. It was the first of several tumors we would have removed and the first of many vet warnings that our beloved pet only had several months to live. These scares turned me into the Girl who Cried Wolf. Er... The Girl who Cried Death. Er... The Woolf who cried Death. The Woolf who cried Wolf. Etc.

I'd cry, of course. Get a hold of myself and then promptly sit Archer down to explain to him that our dog was soon to die. After the third time doing this, I realized I may have been premature with the death talk. Cooper is currently the beacon of health, lumpy but cancer free and even though I anticipate he will die eventually (obviously), I'm no longer surprised to hear the vet change his tune from "I'm sorry but the prognosis is bad," to "Yours is the healthiest Boxer we've ever had!" every other time we leave the vet.


Not to sound cold and calculated about our beloved dog but death is something we talk about in our household as matter of factly as we discuss homework or "family hat day" (we're currently doing "theme days" in our house. I totally get why my grandfather always wanted us to wear tee-shirts with wolves on them for family reunions. Turns out? Sometimes it's fun to all dress the same and go out to dinner.)

I digress... death is a subject we talk about without fear. I attended twelve funerals of High School friends alone in the last decade, one of whom was once my dearest friend. I've been the first on the scene of two fatal accidents, one involving friends. I mourned the deaths of children many times over when I chatted with chronic and terminally ill kids and teens as my job for four years. I was pregnant with Archer then. And I believe it has changed the way I parent as well as perceive death and being fearful of it. Especially as death relates to children.

If those kids taught me one thing (they taught me many things) it's that death becomes far less scary when you accept that it's going to happen. So from a very early age, I've discussed with Archer that he will someday die. That all of us will and not necessarily when we're "old" either. That children die sometimes, too. From illness. From accidents. That the people he loves very much will die and he will find himself very sad when they do. That the heartbreak we feel when we lose those we love is what makes us most human. Alive.

Archer has always had his own ideas about what happens when we die and I love exploring that with him - discussing where he thinks he'll go and where he feels he has been before.

Mortality is what makes us so interesting anyway so why not discuss death like we do life? After all, dying is the end goal, biologically. It's where we'll all end up. The last common bond we have with one another as creatures, alive for now...


Occasionally we look at pictures of our friends and family members who are no longer on this side of things. We discuss, tell stories, laugh, feel sad, feel happy, feel sad again. And in the same way we occasionally talk about what will happen when Cooper's cancer comes back. When our other dog, Zadie dies. When mommy dies. And daddy. Gooey and Papa and Nana and Great Grandpa. We talk about how much we'll miss each other when we are no longer able to hold each other with our bodies but that we'll forever hold onto each other with our minds, our stories and words, our hearts. And in the meantime... how fantastic that we get to, right? And we do. Constantly. We pile on top of each other like puppies and tell each other all day long how much we love each other. Because we can. Because someday that won't be the case. Que sera. C'est la vie. Life is short. Etc.

I don't understand why a parent would lie to their children about death. It's one of those things that, frankly, blows my mind. Kind of like lying to kids about where babies come from. Of course these things are difficult to talk about. All the fascinating stuff is. Complex and challenging. Emotionally daunting. Easier to ignore than face. Overwhelming, clearly. But if we can't talk openly about the certainties of life then where does that leave us as parents? Isn't it better to prepare our babes for emotional hardship? For sexual awareness? For real life? Isn't it more beneficial to our kids to hear these things from us? As opposed to some kid on the playground? A Pixar film? Personally, I rather have these kinds of discussions at home. Where it's safe and so are they to fill in their own blanks.

It's my job to teach them the facts I am sure of but equally my job to give them the space to explore their own ideas, form their own spiritual views, construct their own philosophies based on the knowledge they aquire through their own instincts.
IMG_2510
IMG_2514
Personally? I think we underestimate children and their capacity to understand these things. If I have learned anything as a parent it's that children, though young in years, have the kind of ageless wisdom we too often overlook.

I know there are many of you who will disagree with my logic here and I understand completely why you would do so. I have dear friends who don't believe in talking to their kids about death until their kids are old enough to fully grasp it. (But are we ever old enough to fully grasp death?) A lot of this depends on religious affiliation and beliefs, I realize. The subject of death soon poses the question, "what happens when we die?" And although I don't believe in passing on my beliefs to my children, I do think a child is never too young to think existentially about life and death and everything in between. That we do them a disservice when we assume otherwise, perpetuating fear in our children before they even know what it means to be afraid.

"Death" after all, isn't a four letter word but "fear" certainly is.

***

I'd especially love to hear from you on this topic. How do you approach the subject of death with your children? How have they responded? Thanks in advance for your insight and sharing.

GGC

94 comments:

Ashley, the Accidental Olympian | 1:28 PM

I don't have children, but I hope someday I can scroll through your archives and find this post again when I finally do.

My parents were open and honest parents. About sex, about their questions/confusion surrounding religion, and about death. I believe I would have struggled so hard as a child when we lost our first dog, my first pet rat, my first close family friend if we'd not talked about the reality of death when I was younger.

To lie to your children, or brush over the topic only leaves them reeling when reality slaps them in the face.

And it will. It hits all of us eventually.

Thank you for this.

Again, as always, your articulate narration helps me look at a topic in a new way.

Jason | These Roving Eyes | 1:35 PM

I'll never forget when my then-3 year old nephew Jack asked us: "Do you think when you die you go back to being a kid again?" The most profound thing I've ever heard. We do underestimate these little people.

Amber Gregory | 1:36 PM

I am an only child, and my parents never minced words about anything. At age 5 or 6, when I asked what a dildo was (my uncle used to call people dildos) -- my mom was frank with me. She said "It's a fake penis" -- but left the rest up to me. All I can remember thinking then was "Why would anybody want THAT?"

Of course now it's a source of much giggling and laughter from me and my mom alike. I appreciate that she was honest with me and that she also left me to draw my own conclusions and beliefs about things.

My parents lied to me about a lot of things, but not these things--they lied to me about money, they lied to me about their relationship, and they lied to me about the dangers I faced out in the world. They lied to me about themselves. And those things? Really hurt. Still do. Hurt us as a family forever.

Thank goodness they didn't lie to me about things like death and sex, too.

ameliawalton.com | 1:38 PM

My mother was a hospice nurse and is generally pretty hipped out in her views on the world. Both of my grandmothers died at home with all of us there, and my husband now works as an ICU nurse and gently helps people take leave of their physical bodies on a near daily basis. This has, thankfully, surrounded me with a lot of honesty. We (my husband and I, that is) both believe that there is such a lack of dignity associated with trying to cover up and hide the honor of an aging body, or gloss over the time that we spend here by pretending that it's never going to end. I also feel really strongly that if our darling American culture would be more proactive and comfortable in talking about death we would be so much more appreciative of our bodies, which may lead to nurturing more rather than filling them with crap and hoping for the best. To be human, to touch, to twirl, to age, to gray, to change physically and emotionally and mentally, to know that we are so much more than just a physical body, really makes this ride cool, you know? Now that we have a 16 month old, we haven't talked about how we'll approach the beautiful/crazy topics like birth, life, death, but I think that part of the reason that we haven't talked about that is because there's an underlying assumption that we'll already be talking about it.. I saw an interview with Laura Linney not too long ago and she was talking about how fanatical everyone is about not looking like they're aging, but in light of having lost a dear friend to cancer, she looked into the camera and said, aging is such a privilege. I have been thinking about that a lot as I look at my graying hair and sagging butt cheeks and just trying so hard to remember that it's an honor to age in this body. To one day leave this body. To have been on this fantastic journey, and to celebrate the snot out of it because it's finite. I very much hope that I impart that to my children, and that more than anything I lead by example in honoring life in the way that I honor myself and those around us. Death is. And that's really really really ok. Thanks for posting this, I hope that more parents are talking about this. Let's keep dreaming of a country where people dwell in truth, huh?

KPB | 1:40 PM

love this.

Ms. K | 1:40 PM

I don't have any children so it is rather difficult to answer this question although I hope when I have children I have the strength you do.

I have always been so fond of the quote by Archer, about how we are all going in defferent dirctions to get to the same place. I re-read it in your post today and it made me think of another post you wrote. You wrote a post about reading a quote in a book and then walking across the street and having it inked on you. Archer's quote did that for me. I read it and it made me stop and put things into perspective. Although, I would love to, I will not be getting it tattooed anywhere, but think it would be a lovely gesture from Archer's mom to have his words with her forever!

Kris | 1:42 PM

This, right here?
"I think we underestimate children and their capacity to understand these things."

So effing true.

My son is only 2 & has some form of autism (too early for a full diagnosis); but when the time comes, we'll teach him not to fear death. I'm not religious, but I do believe that something more is out there, waiting for us when we pass, and it's beautiful. And I don't think there's anything wrong with passing your beliefs down to your children, as long as you can respect each other if/when they find their own way of seeing things.

Anonymous | 1:50 PM

Thank you for writing this. I wish more people parented like you.

Kitty | 1:50 PM

My children are now 26 and 28. I followed this philosophy with both of them as they were growing up and we had great conversations! I always say that I learned as much from them as they ever learned from me.

I think the mistakes I made were in anticipating how one child interprets things compared to another. The oldest, (daughter), understood and used these open conversations to create a happy life for herself and now her new family.

My son, on the other hand, (I realize years later) interpreted things said in a very literal manner. Two examples: drugs....I talked about how prevalent drugs were in my friends during the 70's but I didn't choose to try them. My husband, their dad, went through a time when he did try them. The discussion was that each person must make their own decision in life. He heard, "try everything" and ended up with a drug problem as a young teen that lasted five years. Luckily he went cold turkey years ago and has remained clean. But the end of that story could have very likely went the other way.

I always talked openly about the fact that their dad and I disagreed on things; that we had fights but still really loved each other. That married people are still individuals and think differently. And how all of that was not something to freak out about. He heard, "people in relationships fight". And now he has been in a 6 year relationship that probably would have ended two years ago if he was not so determined to keep it alive.

Not sure this would be helpful to anyone but I wanted to share! I've spent the past decade thinking about what I might have done differently. For me, I think I tailored my parenting to child one, assuming child two was following along. And he wasn't.

GIRL'S GONE CHILD | 1:51 PM

Amelia - the following passage I have read over and over. Thank you for this:

..."I saw an interview with Laura Linney not too long ago and she was talking about how fanatical everyone is about not looking like they're aging, but in light of having lost a dear friend to cancer, she looked into the camera and said, aging is such a privilege. I have been thinking about that a lot as I look at my graying hair and sagging butt cheeks and just trying so hard to remember that it's an honor to age in this body. To one day leave this body. To have been on this fantastic journey, and to celebrate the snot out of it because it's finite. I very much hope that I impart that to my children, and that more than anything I lead by example in honoring life in the way that I honor myself and those around us. Death is. And that's really really really ok..."


Aging IS a privilege. Thank you. xo, R

Kim T | 2:07 PM

Rebecca:
I love your take on life. I don't always agree with everything you - but absolutely appreciate the way you approach things.

I will say that I could not agree with you more about this. I think it's confusing when we make up stories about complex issues. It may be scary to talk about death or sex or other complicated things, but I think it's scarier for kids to think they can't talk about it.

We've always been open and honest about life issues with our kids. Letting the conversations occur naturally. It seems to work.

Amanda | 2:15 PM

We definitely underestimate them. Even at 2 1/2 I catch myself thinking "damn...I was soooo wrong in thinking all you care about is spaghetti and Yo Gabba Gabba". And reading abut Archer makes me anticipate the future and talking about things with my son. Luckily I have bit more time to mull it over, still working on the potty training, but I think when I do I will have to come back to this post.


Thanks for this.

robin | 2:19 PM

I totally agree with you about being honest with our kids. I have a 4 year old who asks questions. Questions I would never have expected from a 4 year old, but honest ones that deserve honest answers. I am currently 38 weeks pregnant and we have talked all about how her new sibling will arrive in the world. We are having a home birth and hopefully her and her sister will be able to be a part of it, if they want to. We have talked about death, too, and the fact that all living things, someday, will die. Somethings, such as trees, can live much longer than other things. Many insects, for example, have very short lives. I have tried not to create a fear around the issue, and to make it straight forward and matter of fact. It just IS. She is a big worrier, though, and worries and stresses and frets, no matter how non fearful I have approached the subject. She fears for the birth of the baby because it hurts a bit when babies are born. She has announced that she never wants to have a baby for this reason. The other night, as my birthday was approaching, she began to cry and tell me she didn't want me to have a birthday, because it meant me getting older, and therefore closer to death. She said she wants all of us; her dad, sister, myself, and her; to die at the same time, so she doesn't have to live without us. She has displayed stress on this subject to the point that I feel guilty. Maybe my approach has been wrong? I still think we need to be honest with our kids. Sure, I weave stories about Santa Clause, but in our family, Santa is more about the magic and spirit of the season, less about an old man in a red suit. But honesty and directness seem best. Except she worries so much, it makes me worry, too. SHOULD I have sugercoated it, brushed over it, acted like we will all live forever, skipping arm in arm through fields of flowers towards the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?
Parenting is so hard, full of so many decisions, I just keep my fingers crossed that it will all work out okay in the end!

Glenda | 2:28 PM

Wow! what a wonderful post. I went back and read the post on Mason! I got goosebumps!

My mother was very open and honest about anything and everything. She had the same approach... to learn it in the street I'd rather tell you straight up the way it is. At age appropriate of course!

In turn I've done the same with my children. There is no topic we don't talk about. There is no topic TABOO! I tell it like it is and keep it real. I'd always encourage them at a very young age to ask any question because I'd have the answer and if I didn't I'd find the answer.

Growing up I had friends that didn't know where babies came from because their parents thought that was a taboo topic. Seriously?!


When my brother died my daughter was 5 and son 8. That was their first introduction to death. The following year our dog died. Then our fishes. They've always known about death and I think at an early age (I was 13 when I lost my dad) you learn to appreciate the ones you love every day because life here sometimes is too damn short.

Both of my children have a very open relationship with me/ us. WE talk all the time and we are very close.

Daisy | 2:42 PM

I'm not at all comfortable with death or talking to my kids about it. I did have a strange moment recently when my daughter was scared of a spider and I told her that it was ok because it was dead....

Hmmmm.

I don't think she even knows what "dead" means, I don't really want to explain it to her, but I'm using it to comfort her.

Anonymous | 2:46 PM

I love this, you are so correct that children understand far more than we give them credit for. We lost a beloved cat almost 2 years ago. We let our son, who was 3 at the time, observe the decline and say goodbye when our sweet kitty died. He asked questions and we answered truthfully. The same with questions about sex and his body. Cancer is a big scary word, so I just told him grandma had boo-boos inside and he knew about that from her first diagnosis. When she stopped her treatments because they weren't working any longer...I told him grandma's boo-boos were getting worse. And he asked me "is she going to die?". And I was able to tell him yes and that it was ok, because everyone dies.
He drew her pictures and talked to her as often on the phone as he could. He loved to sing to her and tell her how much he loved her.
We were headed up for a visit around Easter last year and she took a turn for the worse. All he wanted to do was hug grandma and give her his pictures. We got there around 11pm that night...she hugged us and said our names and how happy she was to see us. He sang You Are My Sunshine and she loved it. I let him stay up to hang out as much as possible because the end was near.
She died the next day surround by family...he was there and he got to say goodbye in a beautiful, natural way. For that I'm thankful for and I know he will be too. His pictures were cremated along with her too, so they will be together forever.

Linley | 2:53 PM

I just read your long-ago post "When the Children Disappear" and it helped put words to why I want to be what I want to be (a child life specialist). I volunteer weekly doing child life volunteering at the local children's hospital and several people have commented about how they couldn't do it because it would be so sad or what not. I can never find the words to describe how it's not, how it's the coolest thing I get to do.
It is my greatest honor to get to be a part of one boy's life in particular. He wears superhero costumes on a daily basis and loves belting out Justin Bieber and Katy Perry. His nurses and volunteers are his family, and I know without a doubt that he has changed all of our lives in a way a "healthy" child couldn't.

People ask how I handle it, and it seems like a silly question to me. I know those kids are there, whether or not I am, so the question becomes, how can I not handle it?

As a side note, the captcha for this comment is "Catedied". Kind of wrongly funny...

Rachel | 2:57 PM

My favorite line from the movie "Temple Grandin" was when she, an autistic child, was confronted with death, she would say, "well, where are they now?" I love what you've written.... Our dear friends lost a child of 18 months to a sudden illness and our children learned early what happens. Daddy's job is a dangerous one and b/c they know the truth, it bonds us closer and we enjoy our time together all the more.

Sonja | 3:20 PM

I don't have my own kiddos yet, but I do plan on talking to them honestly and openly about anything and everything that concerns them. As a Buddhist, my attitude about death is pretty much that it's a fact of life - it's the inverse of birth. We're born, so we die. So it goes. As for what happens after that - I'm no expert and don't intend on trying to instill any kind of "heaven" idea into my kids, but if they believed in an afterlife, I wouldn't try to "correct" them.

Kids really are better with this than a lot of adults give them credit for. They absolutely can handle it if you're honest with them and don't act like they *should* be afraid. A little girl I was nannying for once looked up at me while she was drawing some flowers and said "Sonja, we're all going to die." And I simply responded with "Yes, that's true." End of conversation. She wasn't upset, just pointing out a fact like she then pointed out that her flowers were purple.

Some kids are afraid of death, sure, but some kids are also afraid of loud toilets. The best we can do is just to be patient and listen, no matter what the fear may be.

Mommica | 3:22 PM

Honestly, death scares the shit out of me. My own death, death of family members, my child, etc. But I often try to figure out why because, like you said, it's going to eventually happen to all of us. People (and other living things, of course) have been dying since life began. I realize this. So shouldn't we just naturally be accepting of it? But somehow...

I hope to speak to my kids about death as matter of factly as possible (when the subject comes up), so that hopefully they can escape the fear that I feel. But, also like you said, children fill in their own blanks. Who knows what they might come up with?

Jess | 3:31 PM

As we do with all things with our kids, we've approached the concept of death with honesty.

We die. Everything dies. My kids don't fear death, because in their minds, once they die here, they'll live in their spirits.

I hate when parents lie to their kids. I'm pregnant, and when they asked how the baby got in there, I told them the absolute truth. Simply, and age appropriately, but still real.

When we lie to our kids at such a young age about those kinds of things, they learn that we can't be trusted. And in this world, these days? I want to be the ONE voice that my kids do trust.

Cave Momma | 3:41 PM

I am with you 100% on this. I have yet to really discuss this topic as my oldest is only 3 but she at least knows when she sees a dead bug or something. The thought of my loved ones dying makes me incredibly sad but not fearful. Honestly, I look forward to these discussions and I look forward to what conclusions my children will draw on their own.

Thanks for this, you are one awesome lady (and mom).

Kristina | 3:42 PM

I don't have any kids yet...she still has 3 months to cook. So I just wanted to say thanks for writing such a great piece about death. I've never thought about how I'd talk to my kids about death. After reading your piece and thinking about it, giving them the opportunity to form their own thoughts and opinions about death from an early age is probably one of the best ways to help your kids deal with it when it does happen.

The Hojo Family | 3:51 PM

I do talk to my kids about death. We have had pets die and family members die and I don't see a reason to lie about it. I tell them that they died, but their spirit lives on. We're Christian, so I tell my kids that while the person is dead on earth, they go to live in Heaven with God. Not their body, but their spirit. My kids are only 6yrs. and 3yrs., but they understand considerably well.


I also tell them the truth about everything else they ask. Unfortunatly my step-dad is an alcoholic and addicted to prescription drugs and I talk honestly and openly about that with them because they need to know for their own safety and to understand why they see him act the way he does (on the rare occasions they are around him).

My kids also know the truth about how they were born. They asked, so I age appropriatly told them. It has always bothered me when my other mommy friends have told their kids about a "special baby seed" or a stork or whatever.

I believe it does a disservace to our kids to lie to them about such important facts of life. I think they will be able to handle these issues so much better throughout their lives if they learn it from an early age.

em | 4:05 PM

Thanks for opening my eyes here. I lost both my grandparents within months of each other and I know my girls noticed my sadness even if I tried to hide it. I have some explaining to do.

Melissa | 4:08 PM

Funny, I don't remember talking to my parents about death at all, but I can only assume that they did a really good job. My mom was an ICU nurse, so I have to imagine that it was just a topic that came up naturally and that any curiosity that I had was dealt with in an honest and matter of fact fashion. My dad's brother died when I was very young and I have a couple of vague memories of attending the funeral. I guess the conversation had to start so suddenly and early that they didn't have to make a conscious effort to "start a dialogue".

Years later when my step-brother became a little death obsessed (lived down the street from a funeral home) I know that my father handled all of his questions patiently and honestly. He was a pretty intense kid and I can't imagine what would have happened if he was parented by someone who tried to gloss over his concerns.

Sabrina | 4:20 PM

I haven't ever had the need to talk about death with my daughter (thankfully theres been no need) but I'd like to think I would do the same as you. Talk to them make them come up with their own explanation as to what happens to us. Because after all, you're right, are we ever old enough to grasp death? I'm 32 and im still dumbfounded when someone, any age dies.

jodi | 4:22 PM

I was never lied to about death however it wasn't something that was discussed with me as a child.

When I was 12 my father died unexpectedly at the age of 34 from pulmonary emboli. That was my first experience viewing a dead person and going through a wake and funeral service.

As you can imagine I was traumatized and to this day some 20+ years later just knowing I have to attend a wake or funeral will lead to extreme stress sometimes to the point of physical illness in the days leading up to the services. Once at the service I have all I can do (and sometimes I can't) to not fall apart completely.

I tell my friends to have these discussions early with their children because you just never know and you don't want their first experience with death to resemble anything like the one I had.

divrchk | 5:51 PM

We are totally open about death in our family. My grandmother died a little over a year ago. We explained it to the kids, very matter of factly, and the kids are fine with it. Once in a while, it will come up and they just say, "dead like Bubbe?" How confused would they be if I skirted the issue?

girlofsteele | 5:55 PM

I love posts like this from you. They are very thought provoking. I agree with you on the way adults underestimate children. Although not yet a parent, as a teacher, I take wisdom from my young students (Archer's age) on a daily basis. Kid's thoughts are often pure and profound. I don't have any particular advice or offerings on this subject, but as you have stated, I think kids gather and figure out a lot on their own. I think that your standpoint on this matter (and many others) with your children is very respectable.

Emily | 6:07 PM

On a similar but different vein: I was at the zoo in Chicago watching the penguins swim around their "pond", listening to a mom tell her child "Oh look at the penguins swimming!" When the penguins were fed, dead fish were tossed in and the penguins swam around feeding. The mother tore her son away from the tank, offended, saying "He's not ready to see that! He doesn't need to know what animals eat!". Even the simple fact that penguins eat fish was too intimidating for this mother, she didn't want to expose her child to such terrifying thoughts as animals eating animals.
So, while this is different from not talking to your child about death, it's still an issue. Not letting him know about how animals eat seems ridiculous, to me, and treating your kid like he's not old enough to understand how the world works will make him think that's true! I'm not a parent yet, but when I am, I'll be sure to help them understand how the world works.

carly | 6:59 PM

Where is Scarlet? Her blog is gone and I think of her often.

Candace | 7:21 PM

My grandma died when my son was four and that was the first time we talked at length about death. I read him The Fall of Freddie The Leaf which is a beautiful, matter-of-fact story about the stages of life and that it eventually ends.

GIRL'S GONE CHILD | 7:25 PM

These comments are amazing, thank you for sharing. And please keep them coming. It's refreshing to hear everyone's perspective and enlightening to hear how you plan (or don't plan) to talk to your kids about death.

Jodi - I cannot even imagine what you went through. Thank you for sharing your perspective.

I also think some of you raise great points about age appropriateness. Fable, for instance is still too young to talk about "death" as it is. We talk about things going "bye-bye" forever...In a few years we'll be able to expound more obviously but for now that will do.

Carly - Scarlett closed her blog years ago. She's healthy now. Living life cancer free.

GIRL'S GONE CHILD | 7:26 PM

And thank you, Candace for sharing the book. Will be looking into it absolutely.

Tara | 8:08 PM

I couldn't agree more with this. Speaking with your children honestly about life, death, and everything in between is the only way I can imagine being comfortable as a parent. My husband and I are currently expecting our first child. We are without question that we will try to approach parenting with honesty and compassion, the same way we approach our lives.

I have seen many friends avoid and/or lie to their children about uncomfortable subjects and it makes me cringe every time I see it. It seems intuitive that establishing a stable and realistic world view, as well as trust with your child, would begin with truth.

I just finished reading Ina May Gaskin's Guide to Childbirth and although it's obviously about the birthing process, it makes some pretty profound statements about the innate wisdom of children. I hope to treat my child with the love and respect they deserve from day one and in my eyes that includes complete transparency on my part. I can't wait to hear all their amazing insights.

mare | 8:18 PM

Impecable timing Rebecca. Tomorrow, as a 45-ear-old child I assist my dad in 'pushing the button' for my mother, his wife's cremation.

Thank you for this.

Brooke | 8:45 PM

I am not a parent yet, but this week there was a teen suicide in my family. I wonder how/if you would approach this topic, as members of my family have taken different approaches with their children.

As far as me? When I think of it all, I just want to keep this growing baby in my belly for as long as possible. Forever? ; )

Sarah | 9:40 PM

after the death of my five year old cousin from cancer, I am very accepting of death when it is an older person. My grandfather just died on Tuesday, he was 91 years old. He missed my grandmother, and the son and daughter that had already died. he believed he was going to see them again, and that brought him comfort. since no one really knows, I think it is ok to believe whatever you want to feel comforted. No one can ever prove you wrong.

Because of my cousin's death, the children in my life are aware that children can die. They also had a friend whose mother passed away from breast cancer, so they know they could lose their parents too. but we try our best to concentrate on celebrating today, and making sure that we all express our love for one another.

andygirl | 10:48 PM

ya know, as a child, my parents were always very open about death. of course, they were also very religious so they had a set-in-stone explanation, but they didn't mince words and I still appreciate that. I dealt with the deaths of family members and pets from a very young age.

and I've even had more than a couple friends die as an adult. but as I'm about to lose my first pet as an adult, a 7 year old cat with cancer, I'm having the hardest time being the grownup. I want my dad to come here and take care of it and I can just grieve. but having to be in charge of this little life? is one of the hardest things I've had to do. and I'm 30. yeash.

Anonymous | 12:12 AM

When my son was 4 years old, our elderly cat LK died suddenly. We talked about how LK had a weak heart and how the vet could not make it better anymore, and now he was gone forever from our home but always in our memories. At some point in the conversation my son asked if LK was "flat." I said yes, and my son started to cry real tears of grief. He understood this cartoonish representation of death. He also asked if our other pets were going to die. And I told him yes, some day, but right now we do not need to worry about it because they are young, healthy, and the pets themselves are not worried about it. "They are too busy loving us and living their lives." I got that from some web site about children and pet loss. We also read Judith Viorst's "The Tenth Good Thing About Barney". I'm glad we were open and honest. I think it expanded my son's ability to talk about the loss, express his feelings, and ask questions about what he didn't understand.

Jennifer | 12:36 AM

We talk about death in this family, too. We have had beloved pets die, close extended family members die and have strokes and chronic illness. So the realities of the fragility of the body (and the strength of the spirit) have been a part of Nola's (my now 5 yr old daughter) entire life.

She has never been wary or afraid of these conversations, and has often been quite insightful about how you can miss a pet, but also be relived when said pet's crabby and not so nice old kittyness is gone. In other words, death has not become romanticized around these parts, and it does make her appreciate the cycles of life and the care we put into each other and those around us.

I think this is just one of the ways that kids are much stronger and more perceptive than society and ideologies of childhood lead us to believe. If they are brought up in secure and loving spaces, I think that children have the capacity to understand their world with love and compassion -- not fear.

I have found with my daughter that death, feelings, interactions with peers are really much less charged than I remembered them to be because we (and her awesome school and teachers) let her explore and understand them in honest ways -- not ways based in fear and judgement. I think that is always a good place to start.

JR Morber | 5:55 AM

I completely agree with the way you handle death in your family. Congratulations!

Children trust us to tell them how things really are, and when we lie or try to shield them from the truth we break that trust.

I love how you respect your kids enough to tell them the facts and then let them decide on their own how to define those things that we aren't sure of. I think that forcing beliefs on children, or even attempting to influence them robs children of part of being human.

And oh how wonderful that you make the point that here, today, we are all able to love one another, so let's really enjoy, use, appreciate, do something with this time we have. Let's celebrate life and one another because it's not permanent, and how extraordinary.

Isn't that the point of living?

Allison | 6:02 AM

We had a similar experience with our boxer. We were told she had cancer and would have about 6 more months. This was in November 2007, and she is still going strong. Getting older of course, but still with us.

I don't have children, but I think when/if I do i would treat death similarly. I feel like sugar coating it only to pull the rug out later would be so much harder for them to deal with.

Heather | 6:03 AM

Well said. My daughter will be 3 on Feb. 18th. Since her birth two of my cousins have died and we were forced to put our eleven year old rottie down. She was clueless as each death and the aftermath of each were present in our daily lives. I believe she was and is too young to wrap her head around the depth of what was happening. I never even talked with her about the death of my cousins or our family dog. Being that she was 1 and 2 spared me the discussion. Well, time doesn't stand still, she is growing older, my time will come as a parent. Need for discussion will arise. This post makes me think. I believe you are approaching this in the way I hope to when the time comes.

My Bottle's Up! | 6:23 AM

::sigh::

that last sentence about fear nails it.

like you, i have buried more than i would like to utter out loud. old and young... too young... barely born. and while we haven't talked much with jackson about it (he's two and a half), i know that when the time comes, we will embrace it as we have embraced that death is a part of life.

this was beautifully written.

Connie S. | 6:48 AM

When I was little, say, between the ages of seven and nine, I remember I would wake in the middle of the night and find myself thinking about death-the fact that one day, I just wouldn't be. And it would make me shake and shiver and I would run to my parents, and wake them and say simply, "One day we're going to die. And I won't be here, and you won't be here..." and I remember how upset the idea of it all being over would make me. And I remember that my dad would pull me onto his lap and say, "Yeah, baby, that's true. I know that's really scary. It's scary for grownups to think about too." and he'd let me listen to his heartbeat and he'd then quickly follow with "but not for a long, long time, hopefully." I went to a lot of funerals starting from a rather young age, and I think it forced me to think about death young. I always appreciated how straight up my dad was. He didn't diminish my fear, didn't lie about it.
I look at friends of mine now, who are only now dealing with death and they are spiralling, because they have never had to think about it, never were taught by their parents how to cope about it, and are now adults who don't know how to process death.
So, kudos to you guys for "going there" and talking about it. It's certainly going to help your kids swallow that great big grief much healthier someday.

k | 7:02 AM

Thank you for such a wonderful post. It really made me think about how my husband and I will discuss these serious subjects with our children. We have a little girl right now, who is just turning one and we are always in coversation about how to broach these subjects.
On a seperate note, I have also had many high school friends and aquaintences pass away due to drugs, accidents etc. One very close friend passed away while studying abroad. It hit my husband and I very hard, because it always feels like he is still going to be coming back. Your letter to your friend Mason really hit me, as we have another friend who we had to cut out of our life due to excessive drug use. We grew up, he still hasn't. I worry every day about getting that call. I hope I never do. Not having him in my life is hard, but waiting for the "death call" is even harder...
Ultimately I do feel that we will be honest with our daughter, so when she does have to experience it she feels comfort in understanding as well.

carly | 7:16 AM

@Jodi

I was 9 when my father died (cancer. he was 36) and my mother's reaction was not to talk about it at all really. I was totally traumatized and it really, really messed me up. Complete daddy's girl. I had horrible axiety all through high school and my early 20s, weird physical symptoms. I'm 26 now and only just realizing how badly damaged I was/am by having no support system/not feeling like I could ask questions/talk about it.

Shannon | 7:20 AM

I'd like to chime in from a different perspective. Unfortunately, I have a lot of experience with this subject. My child was on life-support and hospitalized for 3 months last year; we were told he had a 50/50 chance of surviving. He did, thankfully. After months and months of stress and worry and sleeping in a hospital every single night, we finally got to come home - 1 week before his first birthday. Yay! Six weeks later my husband died, unexpectedly. I don't have the luxury of not talking about death to my son because it cloaks us like a burlap blanket. And, I know now that it is inevitable, it is natural and there is nothing we can do about it. The problem, in my opinion, is the way our society deals with it, which is – we don’t.

I would say that 75% of the people I know, whether they are friends or acquaintances, act so incredibly uncomfortable around me now. They treat me like I’m either invisible or contagious. At first it really hurt, but I’ve come to the conclusion that it is because they look at me and see that life is fragile and that their happy bubble is in the precarious hands of a thorny fate.

Believe me, we in our mourning weeds don’t want to sit and talk about how we are coping with everybody we know, but a simple acknowledgment goes a long way. A “this really blows and I’m so sorry” is so much better than a bright, “HEY, HOW WAS YOUR CHRISTMAS/WEEKEND/CINCO DE MAYO?”

So, excuse my ramble, but it is imperative that you teach your kids about death. Not only so they aren’t scared and unable to cope when it inevitably happens to someone they love, but also so they don’t grow up to be assholes who treat grieving people like a bubonic plague carrying rat. ;-)

Taxidermy Worms | 8:03 AM

I love the concept of providing the basic facts to your children in any situation and then giving them the opportunity to process it on their own, this allows them to use their inherent curiosity to learn and discover on their own. I personally believe that people as a whole take in new information if they believe they discovered it themselves. As long as we as parents make sure we are there during this process to help them "debrief" when they come to conclusions that are frightening or confusing to them.

I always think back to when I was asked to read a biography in elementary school and write a report on it. The guidelines weren't very strict and so, as a young child with a love for reading wanting to take on a challenge I picked the Dairy of Anne Frank not knowing at all what I had gotten myself in to. My mom didn't try to stop me or steer my choice in another direction but she did tell me it would be intense and asked that I talk to her about what I read and how it made me feel as I went along. It was a horrifying discovery that people were capable of such cruelty and it changed me instantly... but my mom was there every step of the way, she was my safe haven where I could process this new knowledge and respond however I needed to.

I am not a fan of sheltering children from truths, nor to I feel we should go out of our way to introduce negative into their lives either. I feel that children will develop a curiosity about things as they become ready to handle the information. Sometimes as parents we do need to make discernments about just how much to share. These topics are multi-faceted and just because they may be able to handle knowing that people will permanently leave this world, they may not be ready to hear that this fact means their own parents could drop dead at any second. It depends on the child as much as it does on their age. Some kids will spin off into a sea of worry and stress for a week straight if we use the death of a pet to also lay the news on them that someday the people who protect them and love them day in and day out won't be there. That same child may come back a week later ready to hear it after they've processed the pet's death, but they might have needed to come to terms with it on their own a little bit at a time.

boosmom10 | 8:42 AM

I'm with you on being honest with your children. I always tried to be as honest as possible with my son. He is 19 and in college but our family is very open about everything! Yes there are cringe moments on both sides but, I'd rather be open and honest with my child from the start so he/she can know they can be open and honest with you as well. If you lie to them chances are they will lie to you as well.

As far as the death thing. Death always seems to come up it's the cycle of life. It's in disney movies and real life. How a parent reacts is key. Bravo to you for preparing your children to love and hold on to the love while you can because you never know when you will not have that chance again. I applaud you for that! two thumbs up! haha

On the sex issue he brought it up in Kindergarden. I asked what he thought it was and told him no that isn't it. I don't feel your quite old enough to know yet but I promise you when you are a little older I will tell you. By the end of kindergarden he says he knows what it is I ask he tells me I laugh and say yep. That's about right. Then we had questions and answers from there. I found out that he learned from a boy that said he and his sister had been doing that. Of course I went to the director of the daycare. I wasn't upset that kids talk about these things... they just do but I was concerned for the kids safety. Had we not been open and honest with our son I wonder if he would have told us about how he learned about it. Scarry world out there! Keep your babies armed with knowledge. That way if they have questions they will feel comforatable coming to you and know you are not going to give them some lame answer.

Hespyhesp | 9:21 AM

I have not yet lost anyone close to me and therefore am still scared to death of death itself.My mother has always been open and honest, yet I've never really been able to discuss it because I just can't deal. And I can't even think about losing my baby. I don't even watch the news anymore because I don't want to hear anything sad that involves children or anyone else, really. I know that it's not a good way to be, but I don't know how to change it. My little guy is 2 so I guess I really need to start figuring it out. I don't want to be all "do as I say, not as I do!"

Polly Scott | 9:23 AM

My sister, nephew and I were on a walk. My nephew said, "Mom, what's wrong with that bird."

She said, "It's asleep."

I said, "It's dead."

She said, "Thanks. I didn't know what to say." I don't know if it helped, but I think it's a good idea to be honest.

Amber | 9:34 AM

really, just so lovely and smart. the best parenting advice i've ever heard about how to talk about dying. thank you.

John Sanford | 10:01 AM

Dealing with a death of a loved one is never easy. A pet is someone that becomes part of the family so explaining their loss especially to children can be especially hard to do. Just make sure you are honest with your children so they learn to understand and accept death.

Sara | 10:06 AM

Beautifully said Rebecca. I agree, and though I don't have children now, I hope that someday I'm able to articulate these ideas as well as you.

Thank you.

Steph(anie) | 10:11 AM

I've been struggling with this topic with my four year old. My mother-in-law died a couple months ago, and he will still ask if we can go to her house.

I tried to explain that she died, that her spirit left her body, and that she isn't at her house anymore, but he just keeps asking, not understanding any of what I say. I figure he just needs time.

Molly | 11:31 AM

"But are we ever old enough to fully grasp death?"

Bravo! Here, here!

I was raised Catholic and went to Mass every Sunday where the priest and congregation recited prayers that mention death. We worship Jesus because he conquered death. I memorized the Hail Mary before preschool, where we ask Mary to pray for us "now and at the hour of our death, Amen." This was so normal that I only hazily imagine someone not growing up with a sense of her own mortality, a concept of a soul that's different from a body, without being reminded that we are made from dust and will be again. It wasn't weird or scary. It's a belief system that, I think, prepared me well for when my sister died, when my father died, when my baby nephew died, all while I was in my 20s.

I'm not religious anymore, but of course I will still raise my children with an awareness of the beauty of the world and of their place in a life cycle. You don't need a specific religion or even a belief in God to give kids some kind of belief system from day one that explicitly grapples with death, but to deny them any conversation at all about their humanity is, to me, to starve a real hunger inside all of us.

I fear that those parents who do avoid death talk are raising those of my peers who, when I was grieving, feared me and being around me because I was tainted by death. Who "didn't know what to say" and so just changed the subject...preventing them from being empathetic people.

flyrish | 11:59 AM

Wonderful, thought-provoking post! And really great comments too -- I'm enjoying reading everyone's input.

I hope to discuss death with my 2-year-old sooner than later, particularly because I want him to know more about my mom who passed away when he was just 6 weeks old. I already tell him she's his guardian angel, but I don't think he quite gets it yet. I applaud all of the parents who want to be open and honest about death.

Anonymous | 12:39 PM

When I was 12 years old my mom died. She'd been battling with kidney failure for 4 years when she lost the fight. Obviously by then I was aware of the concept of death but I found out about my mom's death in the worst possible way.

My mom and my dad had been gone for about a week (in Mexico) because my mom had gotten sick and she was being seen by the doctors over there.

When my dad came to pick me up that weekend at my uncle's house I was so excited that my mom was finally home. We were standing outside the door of my house when my dad looked at me and told me he hadn't brought her back. At that point I didn't understand what he was saying. I thought he was joking so I just laughed it off and went inside. Two of my dad's friends were inside crying, and it just hit me. I realized he hadn't been joking...

Her funeral was held without me because my dad thought that it would be better. I resent him to this day because 9 years later and it's still hard to cope. There are nights when I wake up dreaming about her, and how her death was all just some sick joke, and then I realize it was just dream and it's like the wound is reopened.

I wasn't really lied about her death. But I was kept in the dark about it because my dad thoguht I couldn't handle it...and I still can't because of the decision he made FOR ME.

I've only been to her grave twice in the 9 years she's been dead and it's still just so very difficult to deal with it.

The last thing I want is for my son to be in denial about death the way I am. I'd rather him hurt and cry and learn from death... than to keep him traumatized for life. So no I will never lie about death.

I sitll have a long way to go until we can have that talk, but I hope by then I'm able to find the right words and explanations.

-Maria

Janine | 1:31 PM

I've been a long time lurker but couldn't help but comment on this. I so admire how you've handled this topic with your children. At 19 I lost my first peer and I remember dozens of friends whose first funeral it was. I was totally blindsided and couldn't understand when one friend noted that she'd always been kept home from family funerals as a child. The only thing "shielding" children from complicated topics does is make them unable to process them as adults. Thank you for this post

Jonathan & Ashley Slater | 3:39 PM

I don't have any kids yet, but I am sure that my faith will play into my response.

also, my husband and his family lost their family pet (golden) 2 months ago to aggressive cancerous tumors. It was so sad..

love your blog!

-your newest follower,
ashley
www.adventuresofnewlyweds.com

Twwly | 4:10 PM

My kids are 2 and 4 and know what death looks like, we live on a farm. We raise pigs, goats, sheep, turkeys and have processed many animals here, the children have seen the whole thing from start to finish. At any meal where there is meat served they ask WHO we are eating. I can always give them a name. (Poultry is all named Ethel).

We have (only had to) take them to one funeral, I knew my son understood that like the chicken, old Mr.So&So wasn't getting back up again. They know that when we die we return to the earth. They see it in the compost pile, actively, it is plain fact.

A young friend young friend of ours had died last summer suddenly of a brain aneurysm. She had a true brightness about her, and used her life to it’s full potential, helping others. She was an activist, an advocate, an awesome person.

My son is three, so he had some practical questions, which I answered. He asked if she would be coming back, and I said no, when people die it’s just like any other creature, that’s it. He insisted she’d come back, and I again said no. Then he says, “but when she comes back, she’ll come back as a new girl.”

Sometimes I wonder if children have the answers, because I certainly don’t. Not even a little. No part of me understands how this was “her time” to pass. I have no clue what happens after we die.

Our remarkable friend was a full body organ donor. I have been told that she has helped 72 different people, in her final act of generosity. I can think of nothing greater.

We discussed all of that with him, that her eyes were used to give another person sight, that her heart was used to help another persons to beat, that her skin was used to heal the wounds of burn victims.

It felt surreal discussing it all with him, treading water, floating, strange, but he digested everything.

As I mentioned, we live on a farm. It's the middle of nowhere, when it's black out, it's so black you feel like you are falling into it. In the summer when we're out in the night I play a game with my children where I walk into our back pasture and call for them. They walk through the pure emptiness to get to me, following the sound of my voice. They know we have cougars, coyotes, coons, but they know enough to know the chances of having a problem with any of those beasts is slim to none, that there is nothing to fear. Unlike so many adults I know who have been taught to be afraid of the dark, my children are not.

How can I teach them to be afraid of nothing? To fear life where they live?

Death and the dark are inevitable, they are a part of every single day we experience, why some people deny this appreciation by their children I will never know....

GIRL'S GONE CHILD | 4:41 PM

Twwly - I held my breath through your entire comment. I love your perspective. You're so right. Darkness is to light what death is to life. They hold hands, don't they? The light goes out every day and so in our lifetimes do we.

And Maria - your comment broke my heart. I can't even imagine how hard that must have been/ still is for you. I'm grateful for your comment though - such a genuine example of why the worst thing we can do is hide the HARD truths from our kids. We NEED to mourn our dead. And be a part of the process no matter how old we are.

Thank you all so much for sharing. This may be my favorite comment thread I've ever had here on this blog. You're all wonderful, wise and such beautiful writers. Grateful for your words and your generosity in sharing them.

Muffin Cake | 8:23 PM

My husband and I lost our first 'baby', Miss Piggy last year. She was our first dog, and to this day I sometimes come home and forget she is gone. She and our daughter, Luca, were BFFs. It was so difficult for all of us to say goodbye, and I've often questioned how we address those things. I posted about her life and death (http://theazkahles.blogspot.com/2010/05/purple-flowers.html), and it was cathartic. I don't think she 'gets' it as she's really literal (3 year olds seem to be literal about ALL things), but in a way she 'gets' it more than I do. She still refers to Piggy as being in a hole in the yard (we buried her body), which is funny, and yet true.

We live in Arizona, and when the Tucson shooting happened 2 weeks ago tomorrow, we were glued to the TV. I almost changed the channel when she asked me why 'the mean man killed a little girl', but instead we talked about it. Good people. 'Bad' people. Sad things. And what happens next. She knows that police officers have guns, but they use them to keep us safe. She knows that girl was too young to die, but that young people die. She recently told me that Piggy is keeping the young girl company where purple flowers grow. It comforted me in a weird way I can't explain. Kids know more than we think they know, and understand things we are too complicated to really understand ourselves.

I am with you. We talk about love and life and babies and death as easily in my house as we talk about Elmo and ballerinas and butterflies. It's hard, but life it hard.

Danielle | 8:12 AM

I really loved reading this post. Our girls are 3 and 8 months, and I've been giving this some lately as one of their grandfathers is sick (though doing much better now). I can't remember how my parents talked to me about death at all, but I know I want to be honest with my kids. I'm not sure what that will look like exactly, but I can't lie to them. Even if I tried to my oldest daughter would find some way to call me out on it.

Thanks for the thoughts.

Alex | 10:54 AM

At this stage we haven't had to broach the subject of death because my son is only 2.5. But I'm not sure how I would have this conversation with him because death is still something that is hard for me to discuss. I've never lost anyone that has been really close to me so I still view death as such a scary thing that if it happens to someone I love I'm not sure I would survive it.

joanie | 4:55 PM

My uncle at 47, 18 months ago, committed suicide. This quickly plunged us into a very precarious situation of not only answering the death question, but what to say when our 6 year old asked how he died.
We hadn't yet figured out what to say on either front. We took it slow and didn't exactly get into to suicide issue. I mean it was still all too heavy even for us. And I wrestled with the idea of enlightening my son into the deep, deep darkness that can be the cause of such choices. I just about wanted to keep him blissfully ignorant of that if only for a little while longer. Life is tough enough, and I want to extend his happy childhood for as long as i can.
i know I will be having that conversation with him, but I need to ration what info I give him, and also really use the right words.

Christina E. Pope | 7:23 PM

I love your outlook on death. I am so glad you addressed this, because I am currently dealing with this issue with my 6 year old. If you're interested I wrote about here http://christinapopeblog.blogspot.com/2010/12/poison-apple.html

It is a very difficult subject, but you're right and I only wish I had read this earlier. THANK YOU!

Christina E. Pope | 7:27 PM

Sorry wrong link. Here's the right one, and you'll notice I quoted you. Hope you don't mind.

http://christinapopeblog.blogspot.com/2010/12/nothing-but-whole-truth.html

Jen (and Audrey, too!) | 9:40 PM

This post was amazing. I have a lot of feelings on how to talk to children about death, especially because my own 50-year-old mother died very suddenly when my daughter was only 3 and a half months old. It SUCKS that she will never remember my mother, but I try to talk about her as much as possible and tell my daughter (who is almost 2) just how much my mother really loved her. I don't understand why people lie to their children about things like this. It makes the experience of death even more heartbreaking in the end.

Furthemore, my mother's death kind of rocked my idea of religion, and I feel it's important to talk to children about death from a humanitarian standpoint, not necessarily a religoius one. Like you said, there should be more of an emphasis on taking advantage of all the time we DO have together.

Natalie | 10:51 PM

I may be the only person who disagrees here, but I had a very different experience with death than many people I know. My perspective comes from an "interesting" place, I guess, in that I was a young child who's world was rocked suddenly by the reality of death. I was 4 years old when I watched my 6 year old sister die in a car accident we were both in. I fell into a coma in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, and when I woke up a week later, my sister had passed and was already buried. I can assure you that at 4 years old I had no concept of death, and not even the greatest amount of conversations regarding the topic could have ever prepared me for what I was forced to face. The reality is I stopped eating and talking for over a month. When I did start talking again, I made up wild stories about how my dead sister would speak to me every night by my window. I cried constantly to my parents and demanded to know where my sister had gone and when she was coming back. My parents, in their horrible grief, did what they could to help me understand. I went to therapy for years and my mother read me books about death and dying. Nothing ever fixed the situation, or helped me to better understand why children die, or made me less fearful of death and dying. Ive had many other experiences with death since. My close friend died at 11 of cystic fibrosis, my father's long term girlfriend died at 35 when she was 6 months pregnant, my step brother committed suicide when I was 13. There have been others. It's gotten easier for me over time, but the initial exposure to death was something that has definitely stayed with me.

Now that Im a mother, and I know that I will have to face this conversation I so dread, Im nervous. I dont believe that teaching my daughter that people die will truly help her with grief. Some feelings just dont have an explanation that makes them any less hard to deal with. I find grief to be a personal journey as well, and I hope that when I do have to help my daughter to better understand death, I can do it in a way that is respectful to her thoughts and feelings.

I dont judge any parent who chooses to teach their child early on about death (anything with good intention is fine by me), but I will offer my story as an example of how sometimes it may be an effort made in vain. Even if a child is fully informed about how death happens, they may still need a lot more support and answers than you might first expect. Just some perspective.

withoutsanity | 4:23 PM

This idea of parenting is one I hope to use forever. Make things less scary by exposing them to most of the inevitables.

I refuse to allow my children to live inside these bubbles of anxiety and uncertainty, much like I did. It only formed a rift between myself and my parents and presented me with a high-anxiety personality and a 'worrying condition' for many years -- and unfortunately, to this day.

Thanks for the post.

meredyth | 5:24 PM

I'm 27 and I still haven't been able to grasp what death means. I've been fortunate enough to not have friends die (yet) and I have no idea how to talk about it with children, but I applaud the fact that you are.

As far as sex, I completely agree-- talking about these topics with children is important, and something I'd rather do than have kids on the playground do it. My mom was good about explaining it (she even drew pictures which I could have done without!), but there were a lot of questions I had and it would have been nice to feel comfortable enough to ask her about them after that one sex talk.
Lying about it completely goes against good parenting in my opinion.

meredyth | 5:27 PM

Amelia-- My mom is a hospice nurse too and I completely agree. Even though I'm not quite comfortable with the idea of the people I love dying, her experiences have made me able to decide on how I WOULD like to go. With friends and family nearby.

Nicola Benning | 4:38 AM

Couldn't agree more. Have you read the book 'The Duck, death and the tulip' by Wolf ErlBruch? It's beautiful and touching and my children love it.

C | 7:00 AM

I agree with all that you've said. Death, life, birth, sex... as parents, we cannot protect them from the experiences that come from any of those. So you might as well be honest with them from day 1 right?

But at the same point, I feel like it's blissfully naive.

I was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. I turn 30 tomorrow. I have a 2 year old son. Let's just say the phrase "rocked to the core" does not even begin to cover the way I feel right now.

I personally do not fear death. I've lived a great life. I've loved, I've been loved, I've experienced so much of everything that I feel blessed. If I died tomorrow, I would be content with the life I lived.

What destroys me is thinking about my husband and my child and how my death would affect them. My mom was my rock through the difficult teenage years. My mom is still my rock today. What if I don't get to be that for my child? How many people in these comments have said "I lost my parent at a young age and am still traumatized about it."? I do NOT want that to be my child.

If you were confronted with discussing your OWN death with your young child as a reality instead of a far distant possibility, how would you do it?

I'm not saying I'm going to die, my prognosis is good in general, but this has definitely made me think about and mourn the possibility of lost tomorrows.

Sarah | 9:49 AM

Yup .. Death is a part of life just as the air is needed to live. My son is now 9 but his grandma died when he was 4, so that did open up alot of discussion about death which to this day is still discussed when he has questions. My parents are aging (and that scares ME!), our dog is 12, and also has all those (fatty) tumours, and that scares me too! He and my son are SO close, I don't know how he will handle death now that he is older and understands more. Our good friend and his hockey coach committed suicide 5 months ago - we'd all just been out on his boat a few weeks before with his young kids - and my son was devastated, just sobbing. We did not tell him how it happened but just said it was an accident. So I ask you this, when IS it ok to be truthfull about how a person died (when it's something like suicide)? When will a child understand this type of death? We decided not to tell him because the mom had not told her boys how their father died in fear they would think he did not want to be with them and that's why he killed himself (not the case, he was bipolar). So, death has many questions, and sometimes we don't have the answers. But we do the best we can, and try to be open, and try to prepare. It's the best we know.

Anonymous | 1:05 PM

I also believe that it is wrong to "lie" to children about death, but I'm not totally sure what that means. I don't think I know anyone who has "lied" to their kids about it; can you give some examples of your experience with this? I always told my kids the truth about life/death/sex, etc., as I believe that is my job as their mother.

I will add this, though; I'm not too fond of the "Que sera sera" part. That give me the thought of "no big deal." I can tell you, just this morning we had to have our 17-year-old dog down, and we are all heartbroken. We have all been crying, hell, bawling our asses off, all weekend knowing it was coming Monday morning. It sucks, and it hurts like hell.

You have to be careful while teaching your kids about death to not come across as if it's "no big deal" because it is a big deal, a very big, painful deal. A child or person of any age who can brush death off without a care would concern me, I would worry that they are lacking "normal" emotions.

Anonymous | 1:16 PM

To "Sarah" - I do need to tell you this; I have known two mothers who lied to their kids about a close family member's suicide (the child's grandfather, in both cases). When the kids grew up and found out, they were FURIOUS that they were lied to by omission. One of them is my niece... she was close to my dad (her grandpa) so instead of "hurting her," my sister and extended family decided to lie to her about the circumstances surrounding his death.

Granted, they didn't have to go into detail about the fact that he shot himself in the head, but to lie to her was just plain wrong! Everyone should handle these things as they see fit, but having witnessed this, I would advise you to tell your child the truth.

When my dad killed himself, I told my children the truth (minus the actual details) and now that they are grown they all agree that as hard as it was, they appreciate the fact that I was honest with them.

Anonymous | 3:02 PM

I'm a very lucky mother to 3 amazing children and the thought of leaving them before they are grown terrifies me. I know this is my own baggage from losing my mother at 10 and knowing first-hand how it changes your perception of feeling safe in this world.

I admire you for being so open with your children. We've lost pets, grandparents and seen the devastation of surviving a massive stroke as a family. They know of death and loss but don't want to consider losing either parent. If I were to take this matter-of-fact approach with my oldest, it would cause her serious anxiety. My middle child would want all the "facts" about what happens to our bodies, not interested in any emotional aspect. My youngest, too young to get any of it. I guess what I'm trying to say is while being honest is a must, full disclosure is not always the answer. EVERY CHILD IS DIFFERENT.

Anonymous | 5:17 PM

I think that it is important to be honest and for children to be told that everyone dies. However, as a mother who has lost a baby, I have no idea how to not be afraid of death. There are no words to explain the pain of the loss and the depth of the grief. It is a good theory to treat death as a natural part of life, and I do that with my living children. However, I am in my thirties and no intellectual understanding of death and experience with other losses in my family could have fully prepared me to make final arrangements for my own child.

Amanda | 6:25 PM

I have no idea how to talk to my child about the hard stuff. This post gave me some great ideas. I have always answered his questions as well as I could but I thank you for your thoughts.

nitza | 7:11 AM

Dead is a four letter word in our house. At least my four year old daughter told me it was a bad word. I understood what she meant because her father died on Oct. 19, 2010. I told her that dead is not a bad word but a sad word. I was very scared of my husband dying for oh so many reasons but most of all the pain, sadness, and the loss that my children would go through. I could not stop him from dying. But fate was kind and took our dog first before their father. Through the girls losing their pet I was able to see how well they dealt with death. I also realized that my eldest daughter who was 5 at the time needed to see our dog when he was dead. She needed that moment to process the idea of death. And she did not become traumatized by that experience. So when her father died my girls saw him when he was dead. It seems like a very harsh experience for a 3 and 5 year old but it helped them to know the truth about their father - he was gone. The youngest one feels close to her father now by talking about him and hearing stories about things he liked to do. While the oldest finds comfort in photographs and songs she heard with him. My children just wanted to understand death and I think all children and even adults just want to understand death. Be honest and be clear - everyone dies just like everyone is born. We hope to live as long as possible but no one knows when they are going to die, just live your life the best that you can and enjoy it. And when someone dies they are always remembered and missed by the people they loved. That love never dies.

Christina | 11:23 AM

I read this post last week and like I often do with most of what you write, completely agreed. And then Saturday night as I rode in a limo to Hollywood, off to celebrate the 30th birthday of one of my nearest and dearest, 10 of my very best girls and a hot outfit in tow, I received a phone call from my ex that his grandma, my son's Bubby and one of my favorite women, had had a heart attack and died.

Floored, the limo dropped off my friends and returned me to my car. I rushed to be with the family that though they are "ex" are still like my own.

In the morning my 6 year old found me on the couch. "Mama...Bubby died." "I know sweetheart." "I miss her," he whimpered, "I want to see her." And then he cuddled up to me under the covers and cried. I told him how excited she'd been when I was pregnant and then when he was born. How she'd write me thank you notes for bringing him into this world.

When the rest of the family awoke, we sat around the table, laughter quickly overshadowing tears, breakfast and coffee reigniting our weary eyes.

By the afternoon my son was out the door, into the sunshine, and on skateboards with the neighbor boys. All was well.

He has brought her up a smattering of times since Saturday and we talk.

This post could not have had more perfect timing.

Sarah | 11:34 AM

thanks "anonymous" for your perspective on suicide - I wanted to leave a "buffer" of time so that the wife's kids could know the truth .. and I was scared how my son would react that someone so full of life and happy would want to take his own life. I will remember what you wrote though and at the right time, I will let my son know what actually happened to Sam.
So many stories here, that break my heart - to Maria - I wonder too if your mom did not want you to see her dying? I wonder if in either case the trauma wouldn't have been as bad for you, such a young age to lose a mother, your father must feel devastated at making the wrong decision about having you at the funeral, my son was 4 at his Oma's funeral and it did bring closure. I'm really sorry for you sadness :(
and to Nathalie - I'm not sure you could ever explain that to a child, especially how your parents were grieving so much for your sister's death and your potential loss .. How amazing you are to have hung on to life with hope and ot know how kids of your own. You must be very strong! I also believe that every person handles death differently and you may be surprised to what degree your daughter will be able to cope when faced with the death of a pet or family member.

this is perhaps one of the best posts you have done!

Anonymous | 12:09 PM

I’ve tried to be open and honest with my 3 yo about the death of our first child, who he never met. He knows that we had another baby and that she is his sister and that her body didn’t work well and that she died and that we are sad that she didn’t get to come home and live with us. I expect to get more questions as he gets older. A month ago he said that Kate wasn’t his sister anymore because she died. And I corrected him that even though she died that she is still his sister. And he’s repeated those words to me since then. This wasn’t a question I would have anticipated, and it made me shed some tears after the fact, but I am feel like it is a sign that he feels comfortable talking to me about his sister and death. I have known that since our son was born that I didn’t want anything about death or his sister to be a secret that he ever discovers. I want these topics to be just a part of our regular lives even though they aren’t the easiest things to talk about.

-Sarah

Tanna | 8:00 AM

I try to talk about death truthfully, although I do pass on my beliefs. I guess that seems easiest for me. It seems that my children get a grasp of heaven better than the unknown. So for now (they're 5 and 3) it seems they are satisfied with that explanation. The baby subject is not something I feel they are old enough to discuss the actual process of baby making. We explain that a Mommy and Daddy must love each other and then they ask God for a baby and it grows in the Mommy's tummy. We've had brief discussions about adoption and how the baby is still sent from God but grows in the Mommy and Daddy's heart instead. As they get older I am sure that the discussion will change and we will allow them the opportunity to decide what they believe in. I hope it will include some faith even if it isn't mine.

Thanks for offering the ideas you do and so candidly. I truly enjoy reading your work. Thanks so much!

GIRL'S GONE CHILD | 11:11 AM

Suicide is a tough one and I appreciate those of you with experience chiming in. I would be open with Archer about suicide, only because we've been open with him from the beginning about death and it's something I'm sure he'll have to deal with in his lifetime. My mother's aunt killed herself when my mom was a child and although it was horrible for her, she knew the truth, that her aunt was suffering, that she had endured great pain in her life and felt that she could no longer be in her body.

I think suicide is an important topic to discuss with kids because it exists. Because wanting to die is something (I think?) we all have dealt with, even for a split second, in our lives. I know I have.

I feel the same way about sex. Drug use. Etc. I want to have an open dialogue about these things with my children so if ever they do feel suicidal or have suicidal thoughts they know they can talk to me about how they're feeling instead of being ashamed or confused by these feelings. Same with drugs. Same with sex. Same with every. single. subject. that. exists.

When the time is right, I will talk to them about drugs. The ones I've used. The drugs I've seen kill friends... I will tell them the stories they won't want to hear. Embarrass them. Whatever it takes to create an honest and open dialogue and one that gives them the clearance to be open and honest with me.

Sarah, I'm so sorry to hear of your loss.

Christina, sending you love and strength.

Nitza - sending you love and so sorry to hear about your husband's passing.

And thank you all for sharing your stories, insight, ideas... You're all incredible.

Leilani | 12:15 AM

We are waiting on our first little, but in my family, death was simply a part of life...though that may have had something to do with having many pets, including "farm" animals. We knew when a pet died (NEVER "went on a vacation" or some such).

I remember being very young and burying birds/mice that we had found dead. That said, we also cremated our animals, which "little" kids didn't participate in until 8-10, if I remember correct.

Bitter Betty | 8:31 AM

My parents never told me anything. Nothing about death, nothing about sex, nothing about drugs. All the hard stuff they avoided like the plague and let me find out on my own. And because of this I made decisions in my life that I probably could have avoided had I the information.
When we hide the truth from our children, because we think it's too scary or other wise, we do them a great disservice. We aren't acting in their best interests if we avoid the "tough" subjects.
I'm bi-polar and I fear that my disease will scar my child, when he sees me in my dark times, but I can't lie to him. i can't sugar coat it and tell him mommy is just sad. At some point he needs to know the truth. About me, about life in general. And life is not always pretty, but I'd rather him know that before he sees the ugliness that is out there, so he is prepared, unlike I was.

Sassy Molassy | 8:04 AM

When my oldest son, (now 13), was four, I was putting him to bed one night when he seemed to drift off to sleep after his book. He soon cried out a kind of said, wailing moan. Thinking he'd had a nightmare, I quickly put my arms around him and assured him that he was safe and had just had a bad dream. He said to me "I wasn't asleep. I was imagining that I was dead and all I could see was black dark."

Needless to say, I was not prepared for that. We are not a religious household. I am a very solid atheist and my husband is a lapsed Catholic. I have recovering-fundamentalist-Baptist-upbringing issues with all forms of religion and spirituality, but I also just can't find it anywhere in myself to believe that anything becomes of us when we die. I think we live our lives and that is it, game over. I don't expect a young child to be able to digest that possibility and still understand that life has any meaning, since plenty of adults can't do it.

I don't lie to my kids about death, but I also don't tell them what I really believe because no, I don't think they could handle it. To my gifted, sensitive son who said those words to me, I said that people believe different things about what happens when we die, but we know for sure that we are not inside our bodies seeing black dark. I told him that when we die, the part of us that thinks and has feelings goes away from our bodies, but that we can't know for sure what happens to it. That some people believe it goes to a place called heaven where everything is awesome, that others believe it gets to be born in a new baby and start a whole new life, or even in an animal or a bug or something. I said that other people believe it's just kind of like resting. Really, I was unprepared and barely knew what to say. Religious people have the long end of the stick on that one!

Michelle | 9:43 PM

My mom died when I was 7, and my younger sister (5 at the time) and I were involved with every aspect of her sickness and eventual death. It was actually more of a carnival type atmosphere for us at the time, as strange as it may sound. We had a ton of attention and doting, so at the time it really didn't feel as sad as everyone around us was projecting. I do think that we were served well by being exposed to the truth that after her viewing, that would be the last time we would see her in person, and that, more or less, was acceptable. As I got older, I realized the true impact of her death, but still, it never filled me with a sense of dread, but more with curiosity about how she might have been as a person. I only knew of her as a young child; I wonder what I would have learned from her as I matured.

I now have a two year old boy, and haven't really given much thought on how to broach the subject; however,I do plan to be honest and age-appropriate when the time comes.

I have to say I'm also curious as to why so many of your high school friends have died from what appears to be "untimely" deaths. I'm older than you and come from an urban area, but I'm pretty sure from my graduating class there aren't that many deaths, even 17 years removed from graduation (sorry for being so nosy!!)