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  • Sara Moore

Talking to Kids About Death

Holy smokes, more death talk? Yup. And I just didn't feel like doing a video blog because I really miss writing, so I hope you are open to old fashioned written words! Last week I did a video about death and how I view it. It was on my mind because my sisters friend passed away at 52 from cancer. She was one of 12 siblings, left behind a 17 year old son and a husband. Her health deteroriated over the past few months and although I never met her my friend had talked about her a lot so I went to the wake and funeral. And I brought my 6 year old with me.

What??? Yes, I brought my son Zachary to a funeral. Why does that shock so many people? It's been very interesting to me to see how people reacted and I want to tell you something.  Everybody dies.  It's true.  At some point, you will die.  I will die.  My son will die, our parents die, friends die, siblings die, your pets will die.  So why are we so afraid to talk about it?  I think a lot of us (I guess I mean you, since I'm not really shy about talking about death) just don't really know what to say and are unsure how to answer all the questions kids have when the topic comes up.  Before I go on, I want to say it was a closed coffin wake and I was going to skip that part if her body was visible.  Even I have a limit as to how many questions I can answer!

Before we left on our two and a half hour journey from Conway, NH to my dads I told Zach that we were going to a wake and a funeral.  I told him that our friends sister had died, and that he could ask me anything he wanted.  We'd be staying at my dads Wednesday night to Saturday morning, going to a wake Thursday and funeral Friday.  Both an hour away from Gramps. And so the questions began.

Why did she die?  Did she get smushed like your mom?   Ouch kid.  No, she was sick.  Why did she get sick?  Her body was sick and it was her time to go to heaven.  Am I going to get sick?  No, you're healthy.  Is she dead now?  Yes, she's dead now.  But that means she's alive, but in  heaven, right?  Yes, Zach.  (I know I may have already lost you here, but my kid knows that death is just life but in another place.  Makes my life easier when it comes to explaining it!)   

What are we going again? Well, the first day we go to a wake.  There will be a lot of people there, her body will be in a coffin and it will be covered in flowers.  Why do you do a wake?  Because we are going to give them enough love to help them get through the next few months, which are going to be hard for them because they are sad.  Are people going to be crying?  Yes, a lot of them will be.  Will you be crying, mom?  Yes, probably.  But you didn't know her?  No, but I will feel how sad everyone else will be and I'll feel sad, too.  Ok.  Will we see her?  No, she'll be in the coffin.  Whats a coffin?  It's what we put people in before we bury them.  (I kept it simple here, and didn't go into the whole conversation about cremation)  He seemed a bit confused but didnt' have too many other questions about it.  Then we got to the wake.

We got there early so we were some of the first people to go through the funeral home, which made it a lot less stressful and I figured if I had to wait in line Z might have put up a stink. We first saw all the pictures of the family, and I pointed out who she was.  Which was followed by, "She's the one who died?"  Yes.  "Is she in heaven?"  Yes.  "Are you going to cry?"  Wow.  Apparently Z was so excited to see me cry the other details weren't so important.  Then we walked into the parlor, where the coffin was  to the left and the family was to the right.  I have to say, I love flowers.  I want to get all my funeral flowers before I die, because they're really gorgeous and I want to enjoy them!  I said hi to my friend, knelt in front of the absolutely gorgeous casket and then realize Z is still standing in the entryway.  He runs over to a chair along the wall and I joined him.  So mom. Is she in that box?  Yes.  And then she gets buried?  Yes.  So they put her in the dirt?  Yes.  Pause...  more pause.  Ok, mom, I have a question.  Yes?  So if they''re going to put her in the ground and she's going to turn into a skeleton, why do you put her in the box first?  Damn.  A stumper!  Well, Z, because it's like wrapping a present.  Huh.  Phew.  Thank you to whomever gave me that answer!  Then he said the most bizarre thing to me.  He said, Mom, you know, only police and fire men get to have the blanket over their bodies before they put the dirt on them.  I paused and said, Z I think you may be talking about a few lives ago.  He smiled and that was the end of the conversation.

On our way back to my dads there weren't too many questions, but he did ask what tomorrow was.  I said we send her soul off to heaven now that we've all said goodbye and filled her family up with love.  He seemed satisfied with that answer and we drove back to my dads while telling knock knock jokes.  At my dads, he swam in the pool I grew up in, played the piano I remember playing at my granmothers house and totally enjoyed my dads company.  We were completely alive.

We met some other friends at the church for the funeral.  I don't think I've ever taken Z to a church, so that alone was an adventure.  We went it, sat down, and I reminded him that you have to whisper even more than when you're at the library.  My cute little man was polite but bored.  Mom.  What's that?  That unfolds so you can kneel.  Why do we kneel?  To pray.  And then, thankfully, the music started.  Hey Mom!  It's like the piano at Gramps's house!  Shhhhhh.  Yup.   MOM!  There's that box and your friend!  SHHHHHH.  Yes.  I see it.  MOM.  Are you going to cry now?  Yup.  Is she flat?  What?  Is she FLAT, like your mom was?  No Z, she's not.  SHHHHHH.  He seemed to be fascinated as the priest led the procession down the center aisle and he asked me to pick him up when they reached the alter.  I told him he could move to the other side of me if he wanted to see what was happening "up there." 

Just over a year ago I talked about my uncles funeral, where I saw the angels in the church.  I had told Z that during the funeral he might see them and that he could talk to them in his head.  There were a few times I looked at him and he had a quiet but distant look in his eyes.  I wonder where he was as I watched him.  Other times he'd reach over and hold my hand, comforting both of us I'm sure.  Once the priest had started talking I heard, "MOM!  Did they just use sage?"  Oh dear.  My son was trying to whisper, but I was suddenly feeling a bit out of place.  Yes, babe.  They did.  Why?  It helps clean the soul off before it goes to heaven.  Ok.  Silence.  For a moment.  As the congregation started to sing, Z looked over at my friend, who had opened the hymnal.  He looked so serious as he took his out of the rack in front of him and flipped it open.  With a look of total horror he looked up at me and said, "MOM.  We have to get through this WHOLE THING?"  My friend and I had to choke back our laughter as I tried to explain that we only have to sing a few songs from the book, not go cover to cover.  Eventually the priest blessed her, asked the angels and God to have mercy on her and receive her into heaven.  On cue, Zach asked if her soul was now in Heaven.  Yes, she is.  So now we get to go to the cemetery?  In a minute. Shhhhh.

I have to admit, I had no intention of going to the cemetery.  It was hot, my kid was doing great and I didn't want to push my luck.  My other friends were going and Zach seemed really intriuged by this part so we followed along.  First highlight:  Headlights, a neon orange paper tag that said FUNERAL dangling from my rearview mirror, hazard lights clicking away and police cars directing us through red lights.  To a 6 year old, this was awesome.  We arrived at the cemetary and Zach was super interested in seeing the casket.  Why is there that green blanket?  It's carpeting.  What's it there for?  To cover the dirt.  Why?  To make it look pretty.  Huh.  Where's the hole?  Under it.  Can I see it?  SHHHHHHH.  MOM.  If you stand over there we can see it.  SHHHHHHHH.  I'm hot.  SHHHHHHHHHH.  The priest once again said a prayer and by now my son was losing interest.  Until a boy came by holding some flowers that he was giving out.  He had taken them from the arrangements and in his left hand he held an orange rose and in his right were white daisys and some other colorful blossoms.  Z asked for the orange rose, of course.  The poor kid said that one was his and walked away.  Z crumpled to the ground.  I remembered my moms funeral, where everyone made little bouquets from the flowers around her grave.  I went up, found a pale orange rose from a now depleted arrangement and plucked it for Zach.  He was back in the game after I handed it to him but it was clearly time for us to go. 

In the car he was more upset that he didn't get to see them "put the dirt over the box" than anything else.  He knew she was in heaven, and that we had all given our love to the family and said goodbye.  Sure, he didn't know her so there was no pain associated with what was going on.  But to a 6 year old it's pretty black and white.  To mine, anyway.  He asked me again about my moms funeral, and if I cried the whole time.  He asked me that again a day later.  Beyond that there's been no discussion about the funeral or the wake. 

What do you say to a kid about death?  Whatever you are comfortable telling them.  My suggestion is to tell them what you believe.  Tell them honestly, without going into super great detail.  Let their questions lead you.  They'll ask what they want to know.  They'll also know if you're being honest.  I don't think I traumatized my son at all. I actually think that it was a good "practice run" before he ever has to go to a funeral for someone he loved or even knew.  My son may not have been in a church before this past weekend, but I think he's got a better understanding of life and death than many adults have.  And he's not afraid of it, but curious.  Which I think is wonderful. 

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