Teaching Children About Death

Now that the week is well underway (in fact, the week is almost over), I figured now would be a good time to delve into the subject of death. Surprise! In particular, I wanted to talk about teaching children about death. More specifically, I wanted to talk about teaching a toddler about death. Even MORE specifically, I wanted to share my experience with teaching my toddler about death.

Nellie has, unfortunately, been around death more often than I’d like. Not saying that she’s been involved in a lot of tragedy but since May of 2011, we have had 6 people in either our immediate or outside family die. Nellie herself has been around two dying people; Josh’s Nana, and my mother. She visited both while they were being cared for by hospice.

Nellie was almost two when my mom died in December of 2011. My mom had been in her life relatively regularly. I did about all I could manage considering my strained relationship with her. When Nellie came to visit while mom was in the hospice unit I could tell she was somewhat affected; the sight of someone lying unmoving and unresponsive in the bed was probably a little scary for her. I’m a strong believer that children are very perceptive so I am sure she picked up on the vibe in the hospice unit as well.

When mom died, I didn’t take the opportunity to teach Nellie what that meant, because she didn’t really notice. It’s not like my mom was around every single day. I took care to talk to Nellie about her grandma. I would talk about my mom when Nellie would play with the Twilight Turtle that was my mother’s last gift to her. I told Nellie who the turtle was from, and stressed the fact that it was a very important gift.

The first lesson regarding death that my daughter received was more recently. I haven’t blogged about this yet, but while she and I were away in Chicago, my cat Mungo died.

teaching children about death

Mungo, circa 2005 or so.

I’d had Mungo for over ten years. We’re not sure what happened – Josh said he was acting a little funny, and a few days later he was gone. When I got the news I was sad, of course – but not devastated. Friends and family gave me their sincere sympathies – which I appreciated – but when I told people that I was okay, I really meant it. His absence was weird at first; it was the first time in my entire life that I hadn’t had a cat. But once I’d gotten over the initial feelings of being kind of bummed and getting used to his furry little presence not being in the apartment, I was really okay.

Losing 6 family members – one of them being your mother – in a year kind of puts things into perspective.

Anyway. I was sitting on the floor playing with Nellie once we had gotten home. We’d been home for a day, and she hadn’t said anything about the absence of our cat. She was playing with a toy cat that she has when all of a sudden, she picked her head up and looked around.

“Cat? Where my cat?” she held her little hands out, palms up to the ceiling.
I paused.
“The cat is gone, Nellie,” I told her.
“I go find him.” she said with certainty and a little nod.
My heart tugged – just a little – and I took a deep breath. It was one of Those Moments in parenting – one that would lay a brick in the foundation of her Self. Even if she is too little to really remember – somewhere inside of her, what I had to say about such a heavy topic would stick. Teaching a child about death is one of those things that holds such responsibility it’s almost scary. What I said in that moment could affect her forever: I could teach her to fear death and view it as a horrible, unfair part of life and leave her unable to cope or process when someone she loves dies… Or I could teach her to embrace and accept it as an inevitability; something we all must go through – every one of us – and to take it as it comes with as little fear as possible.

I chose the latter.

“No, baby,” I said. “We can’t go find him, because he is gone. Mungo is dead, and that means that he is gone. And he is never coming back. And that is okay.”
I could have stopped there and she probably would’ve been fine, but I’m awkward and over-analyze everything so I continued.
“And it’s okay to feel sad. And it’s also okay to not feel sad.”

A little heavy for the toddler perhaps, yes?

I explored her face, watching for a reaction. She looked at me for a moment, considering, and said:

“I watch Beauty and the Beast!” She scrambled up off the floor and to the television.

And that was that.

She asked about the cat one more time, this time when Josh was around. He handled it similarly to how I did, she didn’t have much of a reaction, and she hasn’t asked about Mungo since.

I am sure that this will not be the last lesson we will have in regards to the subject of death and dying. When she is older, the finality and gravity of death will mean more and the conversation will probably be more difficult. It’s an interesting thing, being handed these tiny human beings and being expected to teach them these lessons about life – lessons that some full-grown adults have yet to fully accept and absorb. It’s scary, it’s humbling, and it’s an eye-opener that our words as parents have the power to affect our children to their very core.

What experiences do you have in teaching children about death? Have you had to have that talk yet? What will you say if you haven’t?