Tackling Tough Topics: Talking to Your Kids About Death

My son, Mac, is 6. He is pretty bright for a six year old. He knows how to do a slew of things that most kids his age don’t. He knows the difference between a redfish and a trout, a bass and a bream. He loves to weed-eat. He can drive a man-sized four-wheeler as deftly as any, well, man. 
My husband and I decided a long time ago that if he asked a question, we would give him an answer, and not a baby answer. If he asked what some big piece of farming equipment was, we called it by its real name, no matter how long or complicated. If he wanted to understand how something worked, we explained it the best way we understood it. Neither of us shied away from using words that we knew were unfamiliar to him or attempting to explain small details that we knew were over his head. We saw early on that he was going to be a perpetual learner, and he was thirsty for information. We’ve always tried to give it to him in a way that he could, at least conceptually, understand.
But trying to explain death to him was another matter.
Mac was first exposed to the “D” word when his cousin’s grandfather died. About a year later, we lost a family friend who was very ill, and then his best friend’s grandfather shortly after. Those instances, on the periphery of Mac’s little life, evoked questions and discussions of heaven. “Where is it, Mama? Is it above the clouds? How exactly do you get there? When will we see them again?” Each little conversation gave me a knot in my stomach because I wanted to give him answers, but every one of you reading this knows that so much about this subject is difficult for even the wisest adults to broach. As a family of faith, we have our own views on death and what comes after. And yet, explaining the depth of such a subject to a small child was daunting. I just did the best I could, and life rolled on.
But then, a little over a month ago, my husband got a call that rocked all of us. His younger brother, only 40 years old, had been found dead at his home. Mac’s Uncle Jake was now the subject of the death and dying conversation. 
I often forget how well those little ears hear. The circumstances surrounding my brother-in-law’s death were murky. We thought he died of one thing, then another. And we talked about this, not to Mac, but around him, and he heard every word. Jason (a.k.a. Skinny, a.k.a. Jake) had struggled with addiction and had been to rehab, but we were led to believe that at the time of his death, he was clean. Jason was also pushing 6 and ½ feet tall, weighing over 350 pounds. Just like my big, strong husband and his older big, strong brother, Jason could put away a lot of food. Buffets lost money the second he picked up a plate. He snacked a lot…sometimes in the middle of the night…and enjoyed everything from bowlfuls of homemade gumbo to regular ole candy. 
He had played football in junior college and had war wounds from the physicality of the sport. He had suffered mishaps of the “Skinny-kind” over the years, and still carried scars and aches and pains. He also had issues of life that created wounds no one could see. For many reasons, it was easy to understand why he had medicated himself over the years. He hurt, inside and out. So as we, the adult members of the family, tried to work it out in our heads, Mac heard bits and pieces and tried to put it all together in the only way a six year old could. 
And so, as we talked about everything from Jason’s medical history to his weight and his diet and the fact that he was now gone, I thought my heart would burst out of my chest when Mac asked me, “Mama, did Uncle Jake die because he ate too many Airheads at our house at Christmas?” 
The last thing I ever wanted was for my child to think if he ate one too many pieces of candy, we would end up burying him.

So these are the things I tried to do when helping him deal with his Uncle Jake’s death:
1. We tried to stay away from scary talk. Sugarcoating death to a baby (because he is my baby, and 6 years old is really young, even if that 6 year old fools you from time to time into thinking he is a teenager trapped in a tiny little body) is just fine. There is plenty of time in the adult world to deal with all of the fears that come with the finality of death. So, I softened it as much as I could. We will see Uncle Jake again. He is in heaven, and think of all of the fun things he is getting to do there. He is hunting and fishing and playing with some angel-dogs and having a good ole time. I didn’t say anything like, “Uncle Jake is watching over you,” because that is scary to a child, ranking up there with a monster in the closet. We tried to make everything about where Uncle Jake was now a happy thing.
2. We didn’t let him go to the funeral, but we did allow him to attend the graveside service. I don’t know if this was right or wrong, but it felt appropriate to us. He wanted to go, even though he didn’t understand to what he would be attending. My brother and sister-in-law let their kids come for a little while, and that was a decision they made that felt right to them. I think this depends on your child. For Mac, I knew he wouldn’t understand the gravity of the situation, and all of those people in one space would feel like a party to him. He wouldn’t give it the reverence it deserved, and I didn’t want Mac to be a distraction from those who were grieving so deeply, his daddy, uncle and grandparents most importantly. (My niece and nephew are, obviously, more well-behaved!) 
I also didn’t know what he would see. The casket was supposed to be closed, but it ended up being open, and I was glad after that he had not seen big ole Uncle Jake that way. I know Mac’s head, and he wouldn’t have been able to process it in a way that would have been healthy for him. He has too much of me in him; I believe it would have caused him tremendous anxiety. 
Seeing the casket at the graveside was enough. At first, he just saw the hole in the ground and wanted to know if they were going to put something down there for him to lie on. When they brought the casket, he didn’t seem to understand that Uncle Jake was inside that box but that he was also in Heaven. Understandable. The soul is not a concept that a 6 year old handles very well. He was concerned that he wasn’t comfortable and wanted to know if there was a blanket inside it. He wanted them to open it so he could see him. He tried to peek in the crack between the lid and the box. Then, he laid his head against the casket and cried. 
And then, he found the only mud puddle in the whole cemetery and splashed in it. 
Looking back, I think it was fine that Mac attended that part of the process. He hasn’t talked about it since, and he hasn’t had nightmares or issues with seeing the cemetery or the casket. And it made him feel like he was a part of saying goodbye to Uncle Jake. So for us, including him in a part of the funeral but not the whole thing worked. It may be different for you, and I think you are the only one who can decide what is appropriate.
3. We let him see us cry. Rearing a boy comes with lots of bumps and bruises and scrapes and breaks, and so often, we tell Mac to shake it off, get up, and go on with life. Don’t be silly. You are fine. Be a big boy. But this was a situation where I wanted Mac to know it was okay to be sad, and when you are sad, you cry. I could see the worry in his eyes, but I did everything I could to share my tears with him in a loving way. I would hug him as I cried; I would whisper how much I loved him; I would remind him that even though my heart hurt, I was okay. I was present. I was there. I touched him and loved on him and made sure he knew that I was near. 
I also thought it was important for him to see his daddy cry. We still live in a culture where men aren’t supposed to show that type of emotion, but I was glad that Mac saw his daddy’s soft, vulnerable side. It let him know that it is just fine for a man to cry when he is sad. Doesn’t mean he isn’t strong. Doesn’t mean he isn’t tough. Just means there are some things that you don’t just shake off. Losing Uncle Jake warrants tears, even for a man, and especially for his daddy.
4. I let him open sympathy cards and we read them together. This may seem like a little thing, but I thought it was important for a   couple of reasons. First, I knew that Scott, my husband, wasn’t going to be magically restored to his jolly ole self when we came home from Alabama where Jason lived, and so it was a reminder to Mac that this had happened, and it wasn’t just a day or two event. If his daddy didn’t seem like himself in moments, the cards were a reminder that losing someone goes on. It isn’t something to dwell on every day, especially for a child, but it wasn’t just over because we were back home. 
But mostly, I wanted him to see the kindness of others. Getting mail is a big deal to little boy (or girl), and I read him the cards so he could see how sweet people were, and this is what you do. When someone is hurting, you do something nice like sending a card to tell them that you are thinking of them and praying for them. 
Just planting a seed, hoping one day it will grow. 
5. When he brings it up, I let him talk. Kids are so resilient, and they really can walk away from a situation like a funeral and go about life. I don’t shy away from talking about Jason, but I don’t prod Mac to talk about him, either. I don’t try to make him think about him or evoke any sort of memory or emotion unless there is a purpose. But when he mentions him, I leave the door wide open for him to talk as much as he wants and ask any questions that still linger. Sometimes, the circumstances of a loved ones’ death makes it even more difficult in helping your child understand and cope. But I always remember the words of my favorite t.v. doctor, Dr. Phil, who often reminded parents on his show—and us viewers—that it is wrong to make children carry adult problems. Some things are just too much. If your loved one died in a particularly violent way, or by their own hand, these circumstances can lead to even more difficult conversations than the ones I have had with Mac. It may be a good thing to talk to a professional on behalf of your child to know how to specifically deal with them. 
But in our situation and with Mac, I do everything I can to be honest, but be soft, to be open while trying to avoid making him fearful. Today on the way to school, for instance, the word “drugs” came up, and out of the blue, Mac told me it made him think of Uncle Jake. We talked about medicine and how you take what the doctor gives you and sometimes, Uncle Jake just took more than he was supposed to. That seemed to appease him. I don’t want him to be afraid to take cough syrup Dr. Smith prescribes, nor do I want him to think that Uncle Jake was anything other than the Uncle Jake who played with him in the yard, went hunting and fishing with him, who could just about pick him up with his pinky finger, and who never left him without hugging him and telling him he loved him. Mac’s happy memories of his Uncle Jake are important, and I won’t let him lose them. I’m also not going to let a teachable moment pass, and if Uncle Jake can help me with that, then I am certainly going to let him. I think he would want that, as well.
Death is an opaque subject for adults; for children, the murkiness is ten times deeper and more difficult to navigate. This is what we did when faced with the task of dealing with Uncle Jake’s death. Right or wrong, it was our way. Yours may be, and probably will be, different, and that is fine. 
At the end of the day, just remember to tell your kids you love them as many times and in as many ways as you can. 
Tell your Uncle Jakes, too. 
Images via here & here.
How did you help your child deal with death? Let us know on our Facebook page.