Last week, in an attempt to focus on the bright side in the middle of the 2020 shit-show, I unknowingly posed a challenge to the new decade when I stated that “things can always be worse.” Apparently 2020 reads my blog, said “hold my beer…,” and called me on my dare. Because things got worse. Much worse. Over the weekend, we suffered a sudden and unexpected death in our family.
Dealing with death is hard enough with all the sadness, anger, and grief, not to mention the legalities of the estate process. But dealing with death as a parent is a whole other can of worms—one that, as it turns out, I was woefully unprepared for.
Let me start by saying that my husband and I try not to shield our kids from the uncomfortable stuff. We believe that you need to go through discomfort to build resilience. In fact, one of my favorite phrases to say to the kids is, “get comfortable with being uncomfortable.” I mean, sometimes we even go out of our way to help them experience a little discomfort—you know, to build character. You wanted the pink cup? Well, you get the blue (passive aggressive parenting at its finest). And when the topic of death has come up in our family, we’ve talked about it in an open, honest, and age-appropriate way—both from a science standpoint (their heart stopped beating and their body stopped breathing) and a spiritual standpoint (their soul went to heaven).
So was not our first rodeo. In fact, in the past few years, our family has seen our share of tragedy with the death of two close relatives; and the sorrow, mourning, and probate-related headaches that followed. And our eldest daughter was there through it all. She watched us mourn; watched us plan funerals; and readily accepted our simple explanation that the souls of the deceased were in heaven, and would now only be able to talk with us in our hearts. She didn’t question what happened, why it happened, or how it happened. In short, she went easy on us.
Fast forward to this past week. When my husband and I sat our kids down to explain the latest tragedy, it went better than I had hoped. We approached the girls right after breakfast—they had just set their sticky dishes on the counter (milk drips and toast crumbs trailing on the floor behind them), and bolted into the living room to play with their dolls. We followed, sat down on the floor, and explained that another family member had gone to heaven. Our oldest, age five, had a few questions—When did he die? Will you still talk to him in your heart? Do you want a hug? Our youngest, age almost-three (but going on 16), glanced up and gave her daddy a hug. Then they turned their backs on us and jumped right back into their story line. My husband and I looked at each other, smug in the knowledge that we were raising such enlightened and empathetic kids. We thought we were in the clear.
The Jig is Up
It wasn’t until later that night, while putting my older daughter to bed, that I realized how wrong we were. We had just finished our book (spoiler alert: turns out, he does like green eggs and ham), I clicked off the lamp, and was about to place a kiss on her sweet little forehead when she dropped the first question like a bomb—“Mama, what is heaven like?”
I could feel my pulse start to quicken. “Well, it’s a beautiful, wonderful place, where everyone is happy.”
She thought for a minute. “But what does it look like?”
“Well, it’s… nice. Great, in fact. I mean, I don’t know exactly what it’s like, because I’ve not been there. But it’s nice. Really nice.”
She looked at me like I had a hole in my head, “Just get your phone and let’s look it up. Then we can see what it’s like.” (The, “duh, mom” part felt implied).
“Well, I mean, we can’t exactly look it up. Because no one has really been there. We just know it’s there… And it’s nice. We know it’s nice.” (I could feel beads of sweat breaking out on my forehead).
“But how do you know? Did you talk to the people who died? And how do they talk if they don’t have bodies in heaven? And if they don’t have bodies, how do they get to heaven? If they don’t have legs, they can’t walk there… or ride a bike. They don’t have bikes in heaven???”
I frantically wracked my brain for something to tell her, mentally flipping back through my years and years of weekly Sunday school classes—but all I could seem to remember were the words to Jesus Loves Me and those chocolate glazed donuts I used to get after mass (my uber-Catholic grandma would be so proud). So this is it, I thought. This is going to be one of the things she’ll talk about with her therapist someday (I mean, you always know it will be something, but you’re never quite sure which something it will be). The questions continued for another twenty minutes. I did my best to answer what I could (“there will always be room for everyone in heaven”), dispel her fears (“we work hard to keep our bodies healthy so we hopefully won’t die for a long, long, time”), and be honest about my lack of knowledge (“we’ll have to find some books to help us understand this better.”).
Life after Death
I finally ended the conversation with a weak, “It’s bedtime, we’ll talk more tomorrow.” I bolted from the room, Amazon Primed every picture book I could find on the topic of death and loss, and then turned to my most trusted advisor—“Alexa, how do you talk to your kids about death?” That’s how I found an article from NPR and Sesame Street (Alexa just gets me) describing how to have the death conversation with your kids. It’s a quick read, and it’s actually pretty simple—be honest, don’t overwhelm them with too much information, and make sure they know they are loved and that things will be OK. That’s it? Phew! Maybe I didn’t mess her up as much as I thought.
Between NPR, Big Bird, and the death library I ordered from Amazon (who knew there were so many children’s books on the topic?), I hope we can navigate through these next few weeks without causing too much additional trauma. I still don’t have all the answers, but for now, I’ll just listen, be as honest as I can, and hope I’m not messing her up too badly. In the meantime, I’ll start saving for her future therapy bill (and mine), just in case.
Do you have any advice for helping your kiddos deal with death? Help a mama out, and leave it in the comments below!