Talking with children about death

Today, many Americans live until their 30s or 40s before experiencing the death of a close family member or friend. The advent of antibiotics and vaccines in the early- and mid-20th century substantially decreased death rates while increasing life expectancy. And in the past 50 years, advances in medicine have grown exponentially, each development laying the foundation for future ones.

A childhood friend of mine who died of leukemia in the 1970s would likely survive today. Life expectancy for people with Down syndrome has increased more than twofold since 1980 because of the development of treatments for conditions, such as heart and gastrointestinal, that afflict the entire population.

But, of course, there are no guarantees.

Two weekends ago, we learned that a family at the school of our 11-year-old son, Leif, had been involved in an accident. The student’s father had died and the student herself did not survive her injuries and was removed from life support after organ donation.

The child’s only sibling is in Leif’s class and the school took great care when discussing the tragedy with the classmates. Afterward, Leif asked me for a hug, but seemed otherwise unaffected. Not surprisingly, it doesn’t feel real to him. But that may change, particularly when full-time, in-person instruction resumes.

In an effort to be supportive, Leif told his classmate during a virtual discussion that he knows how she feels, reminding me of the saying, “Better the friend who says the wrong thing than those who say nothing at all.” That afternoon, I told Leif there’s no way he can know what it’s like to lose a parent and sibling in the same week.

The fact is, none of us know how someone who is grieving feels, even if we ourselves have experienced great loss. Grief is unique to each person and each loss.

I don’t pretend to have the answers to fundamental existential questions, but having those answers isn’t necessary. I am always willing to honestly discuss anything with my children, even when the topics become complex.

To gauge what a young child is ready to learn, I respond to inquiries such as, “Where do babies come from? What happens when we die?” by asking, “What do you think?” Leif is the only one who’s ever retorted, “I don’t know, that’s why I’m asking you!”

Leif’s next older brother, Jules, who also went to the same school, called him from college after the deaths and they talked at length. My second son, Hugo, told me he’s glad we openly discuss mortality in our family. He feels it makes living easier.

If there is a memorial service for this father and child, we will certainly attend, even if, due to the pandemic, it’s months from now. It is important to show up for survivors, both at a funeral and in the months to follow.

The last funeral all five of my children and I attended was for a dear friend’s mother just before Ohio went into lockdown. My adult children have been to enough funerals to know what to do and, perhaps more importantly, what not to do when they have to plan mine. Which, of course, we’ve discussed.

And that is the natural order of things: children burying parents who have lived full and long lives. Laying a child to rest is not.

But Death obeys no rules. Why did my children and I not die 20 years ago when our car slid across five busy lanes of interstate traffic just south of Chicago? And why did this family experience unfathomable tragedy on a simple outing?

In 2016, The Guardian published a piece by David Ferguson in which he describes grief with poignant accuracy. He writes, “There’s nothing good that comes out of the death of someone you love, but I have learned this: the magnitude and bottomlessness of the pain you feel is a testament to the love you shared.”

And he pines for the Victorian traditions of black ribbons being placed on front doors and worn as armbands and hat bands as “a signal to the world that says: ‘Be kind to me. I am in pain.’”

The only way through grief, which is not a sprint, but a marathon, is to grieve. And as communities, we need to be gentle to those making that journey. Never expect nor insist they follow any preordained protocols while experiencing the rawest of all emotions.

Be kind to them, they are in pain.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on March 7, 2021.


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