When I was eight years old, my grandmother died from complications due to Lupus. She had been in an assisted living facility in the years leading up to her death and I always remember feeling scared during my visits. I didn’t know anyone in the facility other than her, there were weird sights and smells and she didn’t talk much.
When she died, I remember it very clearly. It was the day after Christmas and all the adults in my little world were crying and holding onto each other for support. My parents, my older cousins, my aunts… everyone was devastated. I wanted to feel sad and be there to support everyone but, truthfully, I didn’t understand what was going on.
I needed guidance but was too afraid to ask the questions I had. I was old enough to understand that my mom had lost her parent and needed her space so I just kept my mouth shut.
Two weeks ago, I got the call that my Grandpa had lost his battle with cancer. We were close friends and spent a great deal of time together in the months leading up to his death. The news shocked me and broke my heart in a way I didn’t know was possible.
In spite of my deep sadness, I knew that it was crucial for me to have a frank discussion with my kids about death. I realized they’d have a front row seat to my grief in the coming weeks and it was important to both me and my husband to open the lines of communication with them. It was not a conversation I was looking forward to, but one I knew was of the utmost importance.
My friend, Norina Verduzco-Murphy, is a brilliant social worker and told me,
If you don’t take the time to educate your children about death and loss, they will begin to make things up on their own. Having an age-appropriate discussion with them is an important part of your role as their parents.”
With that in mind, I told them that my Grandpa had died and that we would be attending his funeral soon. We explained what a funeral was. We told them that several adults they knew would be there and they would likely be crying. I told them that I was going to give a talk about my Grandpa to tell people why I thought he was so special. I told them that they would see his body. I told them that no matter what they were feeling, it was NORMAL.
They were quiet, initially, but then they started to ask questions. They asked why they needed to dress nicely and wear somber colors. They asked if my Dad would be okay after losing his Daddy. They asked what cancer was. We listened carefully and made a point to answer them delicately, but truthfully.
Talking with our kids through these questions was intense and difficult. I was processing my own feelings about the loss of my Grandpa and I wanted to hole up in my pajamas and eat cookie dough from a five-pound bucket.
When the day of the funeral came, we reiterated that we were happy to answer any questions they had. We’d be crying and talking to old friends and relatives, but that if they needed us, all they had to do was ask.
I’m no mental health expert and I certainly can’t say what you should do if your children ever experience the death of someone they love. However; I’m proud to say that they did come to us with their questions and feelings throughout the day. When it was all over they said that they felt good about how the day had gone. They felt sad about losing their Grandpa but that all of their questions had been answered.
While I recognized the importance of talking about death with them, I also recognized when they were ready for the subject to be closed. With that, we cranked up the Moana soundtrack and sang at the top of our lungs and closed out the day with laughter. Something I knew my Grandpa would have loved.