Talking to Kids about Death
My son, Zachary, died at birth from a tumor around his heart. At that time, my daughter Hannah was eleven months old. She came to the hospital after her younger brother died in my arms. She was very curious and touched Zachary’s head. She was all smiles despite the sniffles and tears in the room. She didn’t understand what had happened, but in many ways I felt that she knew.
I have had many discussions with Hannah over the years about what happened to her first little brother. She calls him Zachy. My husband and I have always been transparent with her about our story. While there are days that I discipline her with half-truths – like if she keeps behaving badly she will go to kid jail – I have always felt compelled to tell her the whole truth about Zachary.
I told Hannah that Zachary died and that Mommy and Daddy were very sad – although I know she already sensed this. I tried hard to be happy for her sake when life was supposed to return to “normal,” but, still, she would rest her hand on my thigh every time I cried. Kids perceive more than we expect them to; they understand more than we give them credit for.
“Zachary was very sick,” I would say. “He had a big owie around his heart,” I told her before her second birthday.
Hannah has always wondered, “Where is Zachy?” If he died and is not with us, then he must be somewhere, right? Death, as always, opens up spiritual, theological, and metaphysical debates – but children do not have an agenda. They ask because it is human nature to ask. Asking is not wrong. Questioning life is a quintessential part of living. There are some that claim they know for sure what comes after death… I on the other hand fully acknowledge that I do not have the answers.
When responding to Hannah’s questions, I found myself covering all the bases, saying things like: “Zachary is up in the clouds, in heaven with God. Zachy is all around us, always with us. He is in our hearts forever.” Even though it may sound weird, I do believe all those things are true, all at once. I am still figuring out what I believe, but I do feel my son’s presence and my love for him deep in my heart and alive in my life in tangible ways.
When Hannah was three-years-old, she cried for Zachary. “See Zachy!” she would wail.
At five-years-old, Hannah continued to talk about her first brother. She picked-up the teddy bear from the mantle, which the hospital to gave us at Zach’s passing. She would play with it and call it, “Zachary’s bear.” She didn’t cry for him anymore then, though she still brought him up unprovoked every so often.
“I wish Zachary was with us,” Hannah would say. “I miss Zachy.” Her words always startled me. She was obviously thinking about what happened.
Even when I told Hannah that my close friend miscarried her baby, a child we had talked about and that we were both anticipating together, she responded in such a sensitive way. “Now they are just like us,” Hannah said. She meant that my friend and her daughter were the same as Hannah and me. “Just like us;” they too had lost a child.
Even at such a young age, Hannah understood the community of loss.
When Hannah was in kindergarten, I would pick her up from the day home. One afternoon, the day home woman told me that Hannah and her younger living brother, Eden, were playing with the other kids and making believing that they were parents of a baby that died. My first reaction was immense pride. The day home woman went on to assure me that she quickly told Hannah and Eden not to play that way. That pained me. Hannah and Eden were using the only outlet they knew to process their loss. Play! I told the day home woman that I supported my kids in that way of expressing themselves.
To me, that situation reflected our culture’s response to the loss of a child, aka let’s shove it into the shadows and pretend everything is okay.
Every year our family celebrates Zachary’s birth and death on October 14. We have always included Hannah and her living brothers in these celebrations. Eden and Luca, who are now five and one-year-old, were not present when Zachary died, yet Eden, at least, knows the words “dead” and “death.” We have not sheltered him from the vocabulary of loss. On that day in October, we always bake a birthday cake for Zachary. We do a special activity as a family and talk about Zach. The kids participate. When we play in the backyard, we gaze at the two trees we planted on October 14 almost six years ago, what would have been Zachary’s first birthday. The kids know: there is one tree for Zachary the brother – for them – and another tree for Zachary, the son.
Hannah is now seven-and-a-half-years-old. She is a normal kid. We have not scarred her by our family’s openness. She is actually more empathetic and compassionate as a result of what we have all been through. I really do believe that our family’s dialogue about death, grief and healing has played a role in that.
I did not read books or articles that told me, “This is how to talk to kids about grief.” My intuition has always been that truth is the best option – at least for my family.
How do you talk to your living children about the death of their sibling?