Talking to Your Child About Death

June 18, 2012

My mom is a kindergarten teacher. She recently told me about a little boy in her class this past year who lost his dog. He had been out of sorts for a few days, so she spoke to his parents who told her that they had put the dog down, but they told their son that they had given the dog away. My mom was taken aback, not sure what to say because the parents had lied to their son and missed a chance to talk to him about death. I agreed that they had forgone the opportunity to engage their child in one of the important conversations we have as humans: grasping the cycle of living and dying. Sadly, it was my turn to talk to Scarlett about this very thing early last week.

Last Tuesday morning, I received a message telling me that a theatre friend of mine, Stephen, had decided to take his own life on Monday afternoon. I met Stephen last spring when we worked together on a small ensemble show. Brian and I had just gone to see him perform in a show a few weeks ago, and we had a long conversation with him after the show about his plans to move to L.A. I knew that Stephen had moved back home to Ohio to work through some of his personal struggles, but I wasn’t close enough to him to understand the gravity and depth of his pain. When I heard that he had chosen to end his life, I was shocked. And confused. I was overwhelmed with thoughts of how lonely and hopeless he may have felt in the last moments of his life. I am heartbroken for his parents and family.

I spent most of Tuesday in tears. This was obviously upsetting and confusing for Scarlett. I calmly explained to her that I was okay, but I was very sad because my friend had died. I want her to know that it’s okay to be sad sometimes. I want her to know that it’s okay to grieve. And I want her to know that death is part of life. I understand that she is too young at 2½ years old to comprehend the finality of death, but I feel that it’s important to talk about it.

On Saturday, I chose to take her to the funeral with me. I told her that we going to church to say good-bye to Stephen, and that we were going to help his family and friends feel better because they too were sad that he had died. She said, “You’re sad, Mommy. Your friend died.” I said, “Yes. I’m okay, just sad.” When we got to the church, there was a brief visitation prior to the service. The viewing was open-casket, so I held Scarlett and we agreed that Stephen was sleeping. Then we said, “Bye-bye, Stephen.” She was calm and quiet during the service. She looked up at me a few times when I and those around us were crying, but she handled herself and the situation exceptionally well.

Parenthood is the ultimate exercise in improvisation. I have no idea what I’m doing at any given moment. Sometimes I make good choices, and sometimes I don’t. I’m not sure there is a right and wrong way to talk about difficult subjects, but I think it’s important simply to talk about them. I hope the next time Scarlett and I talk about the death of a friend or pet she’ll remember a little bit of what we went through this week, even if it’s just a sense of something, and feel safe to experience whatever it is she’s going through. I hope we can all feel that way.

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