Talking to Kids About Death

We got some sad news before the weekend.

The teacher’s assistant in the Bug’s online kindergarten class died in her sleep early last Thursday morning.

She had been off from school for about a week, the Bug’s teacher having told the class that Mrs. H wasn’t feeling well and was taking some days off.

So we knew she was unwell, but we had no idea how unwell.

Hard News

Chico and I were upset to learn of Mrs. H’s death. Though we didn’t know her well at all, we felt like she was part of the household.

We heard her voice every school day, coming through the speakers on the Bug’s computer. She rounded up the kids and got them ready to focus on the day.

She would chat with each child a bit before lessons began, and often shared little anecdotes of her own in response to the kids’ stories. She was a calm, kind presence in the Bug’s class.

Knowing how much the Bug liked Mrs. H, and worried about how he would take the news, we agreed to wait until the weekend to tell him.

His Reaction

On Saturday, when we were sitting together as a family, we broke him the news.

Without discussing it previously, Chico and I knew to use very clear, unequivocal language. In both Spanish and English, we told him that Mrs. H has died. Her heart has stopped beating, and her body has stopped working. She will not be back in his class.

We told him how sad we felt about her death, and how it made us feel like crying. We told him we would miss hearing her voice through the computer.

We each told a story of something she had said that made us happy to remember. Then we asked him to try and remember something about Mrs. H that made him happy.

He was fiddling with a piece of Lego in his hands, and he seemed distracted. He said, smiling, “If I have to think of something about Mrs. H that makes me happy, I’ll be thinking a long time! She always makes me happy!” Then he didn’t seem interested in engaging any more on the subject.

We told him that if he felt sad about Mrs. H not coming back, he could talk to us or to his teacher. He smiled, nodded, and went back to playing.

I, for one, was a bit surprised at his seeming lack of interest in the subject. But I reminded myself of several important points:

1. Mrs. H was a virtual presence to the Bug.

School for the Bug has been something he participates in through a screen. Mrs. H was only recognizable to him as a face on his computer.

While he enjoys his virtual schooling, I think that puts a bit of distance between him and the teachers and other kids in his class. Almost as if they’re not entirely real.

2. Her death is an abstract idea to him.

The Bug learned about her death on a Saturday, more than a week since the last time he saw her. His life isn’t materially altered by her absence, and he has yet to interact with others who might be sad about her death.

He may feel it more keenly when he “goes” back to school on Monday morning and she isn’t there. I don’t know what his teacher plans to say to the kids, but I wouldn’t be surprised if someone brought it up.

3. Children grieve in fits and starts.

According to an expert interviewed by NPR, kids don’t process grief all at once.

(Neither do adults, as a matter of fact.)

What may barely elicit a shrug one day might be keenly felt the next.

And as a child grows, the grief of losing a relative or someone close to them years before can come back with renewed force as their understanding improves.

There May Be More To Come

While he may have appeared uninterested or unconcerned when he got the news, I would be surprised if the subject didn’t come up again.

The Bug is highly sensitive, and he will surely be influenced by his teacher’s reaction, or the reactions of other children in his class.

I expect we’ll get occasional questions about Mrs. H, and about death in general. He still asks questions about his Nana’s death (though he was only 2.5 when she died, he still remembers some).

The only thing we can do is to respond honestly, clearly (no euphemisms such as “passed away” or–God forbid–“went to sleep”) and kindly.

Where are Nana, Grammy (his great-grandmother) and Mrs. H? Well, we don’t really know for sure, but our Christian faith teaches us to expect Heaven: eternal rest in the company of God.

Kids At Funerals: Yes or No?

We had little choice. We had to take both the Bug and the Bear to their Nana’s funeral. Anyone who could have babysat them was going to be there anyway.

Besides, the Bear was three days old and my milk was about to come in.

For children as young as the Bug and the Bear were, I think it hardly matters to them that they were at the funeral.

I’ve read that experts advise giving older children the choice of whether or not to attend funerals. However, in the case of family members, I would expect our children to be there.

My mother firmly believed that children should participate in big family events, whether weddings, parties, reunions or funerals. I share that belief.

Mourning, especially for a family member, is done as a family. It is a communal activity. I would expect our kids to attend family funerals, but would not require them to go to other funerals.

Others may feel differently, but I have personal experience of missing a family funeral, and I still regret it.

Though I was visiting when he died, I had to go back to boarding school before I could attend my cousin’s funeral 18 years ago. I have always regretted that I wasn’t there to share that part of the grieving process with my extended family.

Not Easy, But Important

It’s never easy to talk about death, especially to kids.

But in the end, it is worth it. Death is a part of life and cannot be ignored.

If we hide that reality from our kids and isolate them from participating in the communal grieving process with the rest of their families (or friends), we deprive them of understanding how life and death are intertwined.

I don’t know how things will be for the Bug. He may not grieve much at all for Mrs. H. Or he may be slowly internalizing what’s happened–processing it in his own time.

And that’s really all we can do. Give it time.