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.

The Slough of Despond

The Swamp of Despair. The Pit of Gloom. The Dismal Abyss.

You get the idea, yes?

John Bunyan’s Slough of Despond was a place where his protagonist (a rather obviously named “Christian”) wallowed in the weight of his sins and his sense of guilt.

My personal Slough is more to do with my feelings of failure.

What Brings It On

It’s hard to say what brings on these episodes. I find myself sinking into a gloom, as if the weight of something is sitting on my chest.

The smallest tasks become overwhelming. The slightest things become major irritants.

It’s a debilitatingly contradictory combination of numbness and hyper-sensitivity. It fixes me in a gloomy funk and can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days, or in extreme cases, a few weeks or even months.

Focusing on Failures

This gloomy mood happens to all of us. Many people are feeling it more with the isolation that the pandemic has brought.

When it descends on me I tend to focus on my perceived failures. Which particular failures change from spell to spell.

This time my brain seems fixated on how I have failed to be as well-informed, well-read, thoughtful, spiritual, generous with my time as…

My Mother.

This is not a new way I have devised to punish myself. I’ve compared myself to her often enough in the past.

The comparison has also been made by others, and often times the expectation for me to be like her is very real. I’ve been told of it outright.

It’s unfair. It’s unfair for me to do this to myself. It’s also unfair for others to do it to me.

My mother was an extraordinary woman. There is no doubt about that.

I am also extraordinary in my own way. I’m a woman of remarkable abilities. However…

I am not my mother.

I’m not even all that much like her. I think that’s part of why we got along so well.

While she was alive, I felt no pressure to be like her (at least not from her). We shared the joy of our mutual love, our admiration and our capacity to push each other out of our different comfort zones.

Since her death, however, both I and others seem to have transferred a lot of what she was to me.

A spiritual mentor of hers writing to me as he would have to her. A friend of hers expecting me to share all my mother’s knowledge of literature. A family member expressing dismay that I do not take the same joy from cooking as my mother did.

And then there are my own feelings of failure at not being such an active participant in my community as she was in hers.

The list goes on.

Gloom or Grief?

It’s almost as if I knew better who I was and what my place was before my mother died.

Losing her, I have lost some of my sense of self.

It’s hard to say if what I’m feeling is a “depressive episode” or simply grief. More than three years on, it can still sneak up on me.

I miss her. I also miss who she helped me to be.

From Darkness to Light

47. Light Switch: Write about coming out of the dark and seeing the light.

https://thinkwritten.com/365-creative-writing-prompts/

My mother died three years ago today.

It happened so quickly that it knocked me breathless.

There were signs, of course, but a combination of surprise and denial kept me from truly believing it would happen until the very morning of the day.

Still Kicking Myself

When my dad called that morning, we should have jumped in the car and driven to her.

I was so pregnant, though, that we all thought it wasn’t a good idea.

But then, when he called again that afternoon and said she was really failing, we made up our minds to go.

I still kick myself for waiting. She died while we were on our way there.

Pitch Black

It was after one in the morning by the time we arrived. Though it was summer, I just remember the blackness of the night.

Mom’s hospital room was dimmed, and everything was still and quiet. Dad was on the phone making the necessary arrangements, speaking in hushed tones.

Looking at her lying so peacefully, it seemed like the only light in the room was the lingering light from her face. Her face had always radiated light, love and joy. The longer I looked, the dimmer she seemed to grow.

By the time we got back to my parents’ place, it seemed to me like I would never see her light again.

Two Days Later

It was blindingly bright as my brother opened the passenger side door for me and gingerly helped me out of the car.

We had three stops to make that Monday morning: first, the funeral home. Next, the clinic where she died. Finally, the church, to prepare the service.

It was mid-July and hot as blazes. I was enormous. Sweat poured liberally from my forehead as I slowly lumbered from the car to each destination. (Only the clinic was air conditioned, and I remember being very reluctant to leave.)

With each trip back and forth to the car, my father and brothers looked at me anxiously. They’re all fathers. They all knew the signs.

It wasn’t until we pulled into the garage at home that the first contraction hit.

Showtime

I held tightly to my brother’s hand as I stood and breathed through the first contraction.

His face said it all: anxiety, panic, worry, hope.

In the apartment, my husband and son were preparing lunch for us all. I heaved myself to my mother’s chair and eased myself in, closing my eyes. It felt like her arms were wrapping around me, and I could feel the comfort of her presence.

I looked up to find five pairs of anxious male eyes were fixed on me.

“Nobody panic,” I said. “But I’ve had three contractions, and each one is coming two minutes faster than the last.”

It was noon.

A Bit of a Hurry

Everyone but me had a quick lunch. My husband downed a cup of much-needed coffee.

Dad spread a towel over the back seat of the car and we drove to the hospital.

I had to give my entire medical history between contractions (this was complicated by the fact that they were coming fast and furious by now). The midwife was so kind and patient. She made a note of the circumstances in my file.

It went so quickly, all I remember is the kindness and efficiency of the midwives, and the steady comforting presence of my Chico.

Before I knew it, it was time to push.

Contractions had started at noon, and before 5pm our little Bear was cradled on my chest.

The Light Returns

I can’t possibly describe the combination of grief and joy I felt in that moment.

Just as the light had seemed to fade from my mother’s face two nights before, now it seemed to appear in my child’s face.

As I held him to me, a radiance grew in him. The same light that his grandmother shone with so beautifully while she lived.

It was as if her life was igniting again in him.