Big Topics & Little Kids

Posted On: 10.10.12

The email came at night. I read it on my phone while getting ready for bed. It was from Big Girl’s Kindergarten teacher. I read her words and then read them again.

What I learned: That day at school, a child shared an album of family photos. And then this child told the class that her mother was no longer here. Per the teacher, this prompted a lengthy conversation about death. Now, these kids are five and six years old and have varying understandings of what it means to die. And, per the teacher, they talked about all of this, what it means to die, what it means to lose someone.

Big Girl’s teacher handled all of this more than appropriately, and emailed us parents to let us know what was discussed in case our kids mentioned anything, or had questions.

Big Girl hadn’t said anything. And I didn’t know whether to bring it up, or let it go. On the one hand, I didn’t want to make a deal of this, to create anxiety where there wasn’t any to begin with. On the other hand, I know my kid; she is a keen observer, a pensive and often sensitive child. I had no doubt that the the classroom conversation affected her, at least some.

And so I asked her about it. We were in the back of a taxi. On the way to school the next day. And when I asked her, she was very straightforward. She said that her friend (this little girl is someone Big Girl already loves) shared pictures of her family. And when I asked about this little girl’s mom, she said that she’s not here. And I asked whether this was all okay or whether it was sad. And she looked at me, blue eyes wide with wisdom, and said: “It’s okay. I mean, I think it was really sad for her when her mom died. But she still has her dad.” And this, this simple and profound utterance in the back of a taxi on the way to school, made me smile and hug her, my girl. Truth be told, I had to work hard to hide the tears that were there, wanting to come.

All of this got me thinking of course. About life and death. About childhood and adulthood. About sweetness and sadness.

About my own love. My own loss.

If only we could retain the clarity and wisdom we had as kids. If only we could protect our kids – and ourselves – from the sad stories of others and those of our own.

Have you had occasion to talk with the children in your life about death? What did you say and how did it go?

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11 Comments for: "Big Topics & Little Kids"
  1. I think you know this topic has been in the air in my family in the last months. My grandfather died at the end of August and he had been a real part of the kids’ lives. This is their first tangible experience of death. I was struck by how their questions were incredibly micro: what happens to the bones in the cremation oven? what does the urn look like? and simultaneously incredibly macro: is Pops with Gaga now? can we squint and see him in the sky? do you go to heaven immediately?
    Just last night I learned that my grandfather’s companion of 10 years, a woman who was his wife in all but name and an important part of our family, passed away in her sleep yesterday. She had been in perfect health (as much as that can be said about a 91 year old) and I was absolutely shocked by the wave of sadness that hit me when I learned of her startling passing. It reopened my grief about my grandfather’s death and made me realize, also, how Helen’s being in my life remained a tie to him. That is now gone. It is also a poignant reminder that broken hearts are real.
    For now, I don’t think I’m going to tell Grace and Whit about Helen’s passing. I think they would be crushed, and because we are not going to the funeral they don’t need to know right now.

  2. Before I ever had my own child, I have thought about this topic before. It’s one of the few times in my life I wish I had religion (or more of it) to fall back on when describing and discussing death with children. For that matter, when discussing death with friends who lose loved ones, too. Because, I really do struggle with what to say, other than “I’m sorry for your loss.” Many years ago, one of my best friends lost her father. Someone told her that “his work was done here” and he could move on. I think the person likely meant (or even said) that he was needed in heaven. But, it as the first part of that conversation that really moved me. I found comfort in the thought that a person’s work in this life is complete, even if those of us left behind think he/she was taken far too soon. And, I suspect I’ll make use of that sentiment when it comes time to discuss death with our son.

  3. Sera

    We had to deal with this recently our never much loved nanna died and we told our son she was in heaven looking after and playing with our two dogs which died shortly after nanna. I don’t think he ‘gets it’ but when he thinks about her he smiles and says she’s playing with Zoe and missy and they’re all happy….

    I like to think as a parent and as a relaxed Christian I did the right thing.

  4. Kristen

    This conversation came up in my house over the summer when a father shot & killed himself, his 7-year old daughter (a classmate of my daughters). While my daughter didn’t know the girl directly – I had to tell her something as I knew she would find out from other kids & I wanted her to hear it from me first.

    I tried to be vague & tell her there was a bad accident & that something horrible happened. I didn’t want to give her specific details as I didn’t think they were necessary for her to know. I hoped other parents were doing the same thing (even though I knew deep down they weren’t). She went to summer camp the next day & came home and told me the details. I calmly told her the truth & explained that I didn’t feel like the details of how it happened were important and that I she didn’t need to worry about anything like that happening to her.

    There have been a few conversations that have come up since. I try to keep it as light as possible and only answer the questions she has. These little kids are forced to grow up so fast.

  5. This topic has been rumbling through our family a lot. My 6-year-old son has a strong curiosity about death and often asks questions about it.

    I try to be honest with my children while maintaining their childhood. It’s a precarious balance on a daunting, impossibly thin tight rope which I often fear I’m not getting right.

    We’re blessed that we haven’t had to face any harsh realities– death hasn’t brushed up against us like it has for the small girl in your daughter’s class. Or, like it has for some of my friends currently dealing with life-threatening diseases.

  6. Interesting timing here. Over the weekend at IEP’s preschool open house we met his “best friend” in his class. We were excited to meet this little girl and tickled to learn that she has been referring to IEP as her best friend, just as he has been referring to her as his. While we were there one of his teachers was telling us a bit about this little girl’s family and included mention of the fact that her mom died last summer. I don’t know details and I’m pretty sure IEP doesn’t even know this about his friend yet. But I suspect that sometime during the school year it will come up. I don’t yet know how I’ll handle it when it does, but I appreciate your focus on the topic here as I know I will find all the responses helpful.

  7. Tessa S.

    I agree with what Lindsey said about micro- and macro-questions. This has been my experience as well – and kids have a different way of looking at things. I often think kids face things ‘straight on’ and can give it their full attention, while I always picture adults half turning away and ‘trying to escape’. When my best friend’s husband committed suicide many years ago now, leaving her with children aged 12, 9, 6 and 4, the children wanted to know about everything in detail and we led them through it step-by-step, even going to the very place that same day where their father had shot himself. The adults found it extremely hard but the kids just seemed to take it on board and deal with it in a way kids have of doing this. Of course they were devastated, but they didn’t seem to try to hide themselves from any of the details or realities, while the adults seemed to be trying to run away and pretend that nothing had happened. The kids had discussions along these lines “What should daddy wear in his coffin?” and they asked “Can we see daddy in the coffin before the funeral service to make sure they put the right body in there?” and we just rolled with the punches as best we could and stayed as matter of fact about stuff as we could. I came to really believe in “the power of the universe” at that time, as I often had no idea what to say, but when I opened my mouth, the correct words seemed to come out, miraculously. We know now, decades later, that we took the right path in sharing all the details with the kids, as they have all, as adults, acknowledged the value of honesty and knowledge in their ongoing processing of their father’s death. In fact, there are very few questions surrounding Mike’s death – there are lots of facts and lots of answers.

  8. So often when I work myself up about how to handle a Big Talk with my kids, they surprise me by being totally forthright and, really, less angsty than I am. I think you were right to bring up the conversation at school with Big Girl, knowing what you do about her sensitivity. I think that doing so helps lay a foundation of trust and openness and reminds her that you’re there to help her get through the tough stuff, even if that stuff might feel tougher for you right now than it does for her. xo

  9. Oh Aidan the talks of death and loss have been abundant in my home recently. I just read in “The End of Your Life Book Club” that we talk so much about death, but never about the dying part. I agree with this statement. I do believe my daughter is still too young to realize what it all exactly means, but I think having a healthy dialogue is difficult, but necessary.

    My friend, whose daughter attends school with my own, passed away 2 months ago. My daughter knew that I visited my friend in the hospital, knew that she was sick, and later learned of her passing. She is 6 years old and none of this makes sense to her. Her immediate reaction after hearing about my friend’s passing was this: “I don’t want anything to happen to my Mommy and Daddy. I would be so sad.” She often witnesses my friend’s daughter whispering to her mom in the playground. It breaks my heart hearing this, but it is the one of the ways she is holding onto her mom.

  10. My two oldest were fairly young when my mother passed away. I’ll never forget my oldest (at the time only six years old) saying, “But mom, everyone has to die.” We always lived 3,000 miles away from my parent so I know the boys did not know her well and were not impacted by her death. Because they had yet to experience a close death, it was all very “clinical” to them. It changes though…once they experience someone close. Tough, tough, tough conversations. But isn’t it pleasantly surprising when we face what we think will be a difficult conversation and it goes well?

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