"When I die, I want to be burned. I don't want any worms in my brain."
"Wouldn't it be awful to be alive when the world blows up? Everyone would die. I mean everyone."
"Daddy, what's a UN air strike?"
The quotes above come directly from my two adorable daughters, now age 5 and 7. It's fair to say that of all the subjects I have discussed with them, death is perhaps the most challenging — and the most rewarding. That's because preparing our children to think about and understand death, dying and their own mortality may be one of the most important responsibilities we have.
After all, we're all going to die. Even if that feels an awfully long way off for many of us, the chances are that children will be exposed to death sooner rather than later in one form or another. With preparation, exposure to death or dying can be a productive opportunity for growth. Without it, it can be a deeply traumatizing experience that reenforces some of our culture's most negative traits.
A few years ago, Caitlin Doughty — creator of the popular Ask A Mortician series on YouTube — offered a somber and heartfelt plea for less death-phobic parenting following the tragic school shooting in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. Among the advice she offered (I paraphrase):
Ask children what they know: By first gauging a child's thoughts on death — or on a particular incident involving death — we can get a better sense of their level of understanding and begin to identify the concerns or worries they may have.
Be honest: If we don't know the answer to something, it's not our responsibility (nor is it advisable) to make something up. Instead, we can simply explain that we don't know, but that we're here to help work it out.
Protect, but don't shelter: Just because we're ready to talk openly and frankly about death does not mean we can't still protect our children. In fact, by being ready to answer questions and share our experiences, we are better able to both "filter" what information our children receive and give them some context and tools for processing ideas or news they are exposed to elsewhere. Doughty strongly recommends protecting children from news "death porn" (her term), especially following tragedies like Sandy Hook.
You can watch a good introductory video from Ask a Mortician below:
Family culture matters
As someone who grew up in a half-Finnish family (Finns have a notoriously morbid sense of humor), it had never occurred to me to shield my children from death or dying. That's probably a good thing, as both my father and my father-in-law were diagnosed with terminal cancer when my children were 1 and 3.
What I learned during that challenging time reinforces what Doughty says: Children are resilient, curious and well-equipped to explore the topics of death and dying, long before they're ready to fully understand it (if any of us ever do). In fact, the biggest parenting challenges we faced when we were going though difficult times was not how we talked to our children, but how we managed the different and often conflicting messages about death that they receive from different sources.
How, for example, should a parent explain why one family member says "grandpa's in heaven" while another doesn't believe that heaven exists? How do you prepare your children to deal with friends or family members who may be less willing to talk about these difficult topics? What do you tell children about talking to other kids about death? Or how do you prepare them for what kids might tell them?
Ultimately, there are no simple answers to any of these questions. After all, death remains both a challenge and a mystery for adults, too. But starting children on the journey to understanding early will give them the confidence and the curiosity they'll need to confront mortality in a healthy, open-minded and compassionate way.
And as this second video proves, just know that when you talk to kids about death, things can get pretty dark: