Talking About Death with Kids Under 12

I wasn’t sure how to start, so I gave it to my five kids straight.  We were in the van after summer camp pick up when I broke some grim news.

“Guys, something sad happened today.  Aunt Beverly died.”

My matter-of-fact, unemotional tone left the air of the minivan empty as they processed what I was telling them.  We’d recently visited with Aunt Beverly so I could sense their confusion.

I sat quietly, waiting for someone to pipe up with questions from the back.

First, my kids wanted to understand how I felt.

Vivi, my 8 year-old, chimed in first, “Daddy, did you cry?”

I didn’t expect my kids to ask about my feelings – but each seemed riveted by how I reacted.

For my older children, I assume they wanted to understand “normal” responses to such dire news.  I could see Yosef, my oldest at 11 years-old, trying to figure out if I was angry or freaking out or sad or distracted.

For my daughter and her younger siblings (all 8 years-old and younger), the news instantly made her worry about me.  Her question attempted to confirm that I was okay and, by extension, we’d carry onward as before.

I told Vivi, “Yes, I cried.  But I’m okay now.”

Next, my kids wanted to talk about my aunt.

Children are moment-to-moment, here-and-now creatures of impulse – spending little time in reflection.  Parents of young kids (me) are as guilty of such an existence.

So, when Yosef asked, “Dad, did Aunt Beverly live a good life?”, I found it cathartic to share some of my favorite memories.

My kids were entertained by a few of my favorite tidbits:

As a kid, my brothers and I would run into Aunt Beverly’s front living room at the top of the hour to wait for the cuckoo bird to signal the hour.  (Yes, she had a legit cuckoo bird clock!)

My Aunt Beverly made the best Kool-Aid – with TONS of real sugar! (She allowed us seconds without permission, too.)

I had to let my kids know that my aunt went to baseball games in 8 decades – including the afternoon we’d spent together at a ballgame just a week or so before her passing.  (They asked if she loved soccer, too.)

It felt good to share these stories – not only as a way to tell my kids about my her life, but as a dad authentically sharing without trying to do so in order to make a point.

I explained to Yosef, “Yes, Aunt Beverly lived a great life.”

Third, my kids wanted to talk about heaven.

Everett, my 4 year-old, was the first to bring up heaven, asking, “Beverly went to heaven.  Right, Dad?”

I find a kid’s perspective on conceptual topics like heaven to be so entirely pure – free of judgement, bias and any need for a conclusion.

So, I intentionally started our discussion by saying, “I think so.  I bet her version of heaven is at a ballpark, watching a game with her husband.  What do you think?”

If you want to hear imagination, ask your kids about heaven.

I heard:

Everett (age 4): “I’d play baseball, too!”

Vivi (age 8): “In heaven, I’ll help people – and, do gymnastics all the time!”

Lynden (age 9): “Play soccer with Messi and Reynaldo – that’s what I’d do!”

Yosef (age 11): “I’m not sure.  Wait, are you saying heaven isn’t the same for everyone?”

The three minutes we spent discussing heaven was nourishing, invigorating and, at times, simply hilarious.

I told my son, “Yes, Everett, Aunt Beverly is in her own version of heaven.  No doubt!”

I wished the ride home was longer that afternoon.  In fact, although the conversation with my kids faded as I shifted the minivan into park, those 10 minutes still ring in my head.

It was as if the passing of my aunt allowed each of us to process together – to talk to each other about a variety of topics with no judgement, without the bounds of facts, with no hidden agendas.

When I picked up my kids that day, I felt down – and dreaded talking to them about such a tough subject.

Reaching the driveway, though, I was energized and even refreshed.

The way I figure it, Aunt Beverly left my family with three gifts that day – a chance to quickly unwind, a quiet opportunity to reconnect and, of course, a compelling reason for a lively whiffle ball game in the front yard when we got home.

Thanks, Aunt Beverly.

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