I wasn’t ready to talk about death with my kindergartner.
In our family, the topic ignited an uncomfortable milestone in parenting: when you realize your child inherited a quality that you desperately didn’t want to pass on.
For my son, who’s 6, born in the middle a few years before and after his two sisters, he has the thing I didn’t want any of my kids to get—an anxiety spiral that ensues when I start thinking about death. Poor kid.
It’s probably universally human to try to avoid thinking about the fact that we’ll die. For elementary-school-aged me, the thoughts interrupted sleep, brought me to tears, and induced painful tummy aches. I have the best parents; they comforted me when I was upset. I don’t know what they could have done, but when these thoughts raced in, I processed them alone. I felt incredibly small existing in the infinite nature of the universe coupled with the unknown of what happens when we die. I carried this weight before I learned words to articulate my reality. I observed that death wasn’t something adults talked about easily. My grandpa “went to a better place,” and I did not attend his funeral. Our cat was hit by a car, and within a few weeks we’d bought a new one.
When my kids started preschool, I found the director of their school caring, intentional, and openly gothic. She has black hair and bangs, and when she wears one of her sleeveless calico-print dresses I can see across her shoulder the green-tattooed branches of a dead tree and two ravens. Gothic yes, morose no. Death befits her as she unsqueamishly leads parent-education lectures on how to talk about the topic with our 3- and 4-year-olds. I can’t think of a better witness for me when it happened.
We’d met up with one of my high school friends, and the conversation shifted while my son was listening in. There are some years of parenting when your kids don’t really get that they’ll die, and there are many years that they do. As I watched the reality sink in for my son, I wanted to take the news back and protect him. By bedtime his questions had ramped up, escalating to tears and the belief that he would never sleep again. His worry fed my dread, and I didn’t know what to say. I just felt really bad, like I’d done something wrong not realizing what he’d heard my friend say about her grandfather’s passing.
Flustered and exhausted, I picked up my phone, opened the notes section, and, sure enough, I’d been paying attention the night our preschool director gave her dark but brilliant lecture. “Kids are literal and concrete,” she’d said. While my adult brain spiraled into hyperdimensional galaxies, she reminded me that my son is mostly wondering about what physically happens to a body when it dies. “Each living thing in our world has its own special lifetime,” our director had said. “There are beginnings and endings and lifetimes in between.”
In the picture book The Dead Bird by Margaret Wise Brown, a group of children find a fallen bird in the park. To deal with the death, they do everything kids do and nothing adults do when something dies (like they don’t talk around the reality of the death, act like nothing happened, or put a positive spin on the situation).
The kids in the story observe and examine the body to confirm that the bird is dead. They express their emotions matter-of-factly. Brown writes that the “children were very sorry the bird was dead and could never fly again.” Then they create a ritual around the death, something kids do naturally through play. “But they were glad they had found it, because now they could dig a grave in the woods and bury it. They could have a funeral and sing to it the way grown-up people did when someone died.”
Death is a hard and scary time no matter someone’s age, and each of us needs some time to process it when it happens, grieve the loss, and remember the reality that someday their own special lifetime will end, as well as the special lifetimes of their loved ones. Brown’s conclusion to the story goes like this, “And every day, until they forgot, they went and sang to their little dead bird.” They took the time they needed, and, in time, they moved on.
As our children’s teachers, we can demonstrate that it’s OK to show grief and feel an honest mix of feelings. We actually want our kids to witness the complicated nature of death so they know how normal and not crazy they are when the death of something makes big feelings bubble up in their bodies. If we adults weren’t aware of our feelings when we were kids, if we didn’t see adults showing their feelings when something died, we can consider why it’s hard for us to think about death. We can ask ourselves why we feel uncomfortable. We can allow ourselves, like the group at the park, to lean on each other and community rituals to move through the loss.
The night my son experienced his first death-worry spiral, he did eventually fall asleep. I’ve since turned our director’s words into a mantra. We see a dead bug or lizard unmoving in the sun and it’s now easier for me to talk about each living thing, its beginning, its lifetime, and its end. I’m finding that talking about death is bringing my mortality, my reality as a living thing to light—which feels more than anything like a big relief. Talking about it diminishes my fear and worry about my end and reminds me how right now I can cry, I can love, I can sing. Now that the cat is out of the bag, it’s very healing to practice this over and over (sometimes spiraling, sometimes not), right alongside my thoughtful and curious kids.