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<  Talking to children about death and loss  ~  Helping my daughter deal with death

Posted: Sun Feb 18, 2007 1:39 pm Reply with quote
Acolyte Joined: 18 Feb 2007 Posts: 9
We recently had one of our cats get sick and she had to be put to sleep. Before we took her to the vet, we all took time to say goodbye and remember all the fun times we had with Kita. The day that she was put to sleep was a rough day, but that is to be expected. We didn't try to water down death with heaven or anything. Instead, we told the kids that Kita would live on in our memories. We also explained that when something dies, it's brain stops working and it can't feel anything anymore.

My son dealt with it much better than my daughter did. He is also a year and half older than her (he's 6 she's 4). This was almost 6 months ago now and my daughter still has days when she just cries because she misses Kita. We always try to sit and talk to her about special memories we have of Kita to help comfort her. But now, out of the blue she has started saying that she doesn't want to die and that she's afraid to die.

I want to comfort her, but I don't want to make up stories to do so. Has anyone else dealt with this? I keep thinking that maybe it will just take her some time and as she gets older she will not be so afraid of dying.
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Posted: Mon Feb 19, 2007 4:43 pm Reply with quote
Superhumanist Joined: 14 Feb 2007 Posts: 685 Location: Atlanta
Oh, that just breaks my heart! One of my daughters is barely five (see photo at left), so I know about the four-year-old tendency to suddenly burst into tears at the memory of a loss. We are anticipating a family move this summer, and my little sweetie will suddenly flash on this or that thing that she's going to miss... and Crying or Very sad .

I must say it sounds like you did everything right regarding the loss of her pet -- taking time to say goodbye, remembering the good times, noting that Kita continues to live in memory, and assuring your daughter that Kita feels no pain or fear. Those are among the top recommended strategies for helping children deal with loss.

Our own mortality is, of course, more challenging -- for all of us, not just kids. Much of our fear of death comes from our inability to really grasp nonexistence. We tend to picture death as "me-floating-in-darkness-forever" -- a completely terrifying idea and completely wrong.

Here's a rough transcript of a conversation I had with my middle child a couple of years ago (then age six) when she was worrying about death:

Parent: Remember way back before you were born?
Child: What do you mean?
Parent: Well, what was it like for you then? How did you feel?
Child Confused : It wasn't like anything!
Parent: But...where were you?
Child Laughing : I wasn't anywhere!
Parent: But weren't you scared?
Child: That's silly. How could I be scared when there wasn't even a me to be scared?
Parent: Well when we die, it's just the same. You can't be scared or sad or anything, just like before you were born, because there's no you to be scared or sad. Sometimes I worry about death too, but then I try to remember that I'll just be going back to the way I used to be.

We've had half a dozen conversations about death since then, but that one really did her some good. And it helps me as well. Getting over our natural fear of nonexistence is a lifelong challenge. The best we can do is give our kids a healthy start on that road by talking about it directly (avoidance is the worst option), validating their feelings, and offering the very real consolations that are out there.

Also highly recommended: Charlotte's Web and Tuck Everlasting -- two pieces of children's literature with a complex and wise approach to the contemplation of death and life.

I'd love to hear from some others on this one, too... It's the big one, after all.

Dale McGowan
Author/editor, Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers
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Posted: Fri Feb 23, 2007 5:18 pm Reply with quote
Acolyte Joined: 18 Feb 2007 Posts: 9
Thanks for the reply Dale. I am going to try using the conversation you provided the next time this subject comes up. I'll let you know how it goes.
We will also have to check out [i]Tuck Everlasting[/i], I haven't read that one before! I hadn't thought of Charlotte's Web either. Thanks for the great ideas.
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Recovering Catholic
Posted: Fri Feb 23, 2007 5:46 pm Reply with quote
Guru Joined: 15 Feb 2007 Posts: 293 Location: Michigan
My daughter's hampster died this summer, only 3 months after my daughter purchased her (she saved for a year to get $60 to buy the cage, food, bedding, etc.) My daughter was hysterical. My MiL told her not to worry, that her hampster was in heaven. Shocked Now, I cut her some slack, since catholics don't necessarily study the Bible much. I had to explain to my child that according to the Bible, animals don't have souls, so they couldn't go to heaven even if there was one. She thought this was inherently unfair and mean, so I suppose a seed has been planted. Later, I can tell her about how only certain people are deemed worthy of heaven. In the meantime, she is now on the 3rd hampster since June. I think we may have a keeper this time - he's been around since November, which is a bit of a record.


"religion is an utterly human-created construct, reflective of nothing but our hopes and fears set in the amber of our ignorance." ~~Dale McGowan
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Posted: Fri Feb 23, 2007 7:20 pm Reply with quote
Acolyte Joined: 23 Feb 2007 Posts: 7

I think this article is pretty helpful.
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Posted: Tue Feb 27, 2007 11:14 am Reply with quote
Philosopher Joined: 26 Feb 2007 Posts: 30 Location: Maryland
My Lovebird of 10 years died back in January. We found her face down in her food dish. In a fetal attempt we rushed her to the only Exotic Pet Emergency Clinic, which was 50 miles away. She ended up passing in the car ride there. But when we got to the clinic we were put into a exam room and allowed to say good-bye. We told our 3 year old that Chili died and she is not coming back. We let her touch Chili and pet her and say good-bye. She did pretty good with it, better than me. (she had been my bird before meeting my husband) Very Happy

The next day she woke up and went downstairs and opened Chili's house (cage) and was saying "hello in there." We again told her that Chili died and would not be coming back. She then said "I love you Chili, good-bye." I have since taken the cage down and cleaned it. I do plan on getting more birds in the future.
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Posted: Tue Feb 27, 2007 2:43 pm Reply with quote
Acolyte Joined: 18 Feb 2007 Posts: 9
Thanks for the link to the article Hobbit Mama. It was a good article, but it raised another question for me. One of the issues discussed was how to talk to your kids about their fears of you (their parents) dying. The article suggested that a parent tell the child that the parent "plans on being around until I'm really old and you are all grown up."

However, it seems to me that this is not helping a child face reality. Of course, I would love to be around until my kids are grown up with kids of their own, but the reality is that people do not just die of old age. I am sure this all depends on the age of the child, but wouldn't it be better for them to know that people die for other reasons than old age?

Maybe it would be better to tell them that I HOPE to live for a long time, but we don't know how long we will live. Then, reassure them that if anything ever did happen to mommy or daddy that grandma, grandpa, aunt, uncle etc will be there to take care of them. I'm curious what other people think about this. I don't want my kids to be scared of everything, but I also think they need to understand reality.
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Posted: Mon Mar 05, 2007 2:32 pm Reply with quote
Acolyte Joined: 05 Mar 2007 Posts: 5 Location: Minneapolis, MN
It may be helpful to remember that none of us, kids or grown ups, is ever dealing with death or loss in a vacuum of other issues; developmental pressures don't take a break when mortality enters the conversation, alas!

The idea of permanence is a conceptual achievement -- one which is worked on from the start, in games like peekaboo. Little children live in a world which is in so many ways to them arbitrary; things appear and disappear, change form seemingly at random, leave when the child wants them to stay, or stay when the child wishes they would leave. Magical thinking at this age isn't necessarily the result of mis-information; it's a not-unreasonable attempt to get a handle on things.

As adults, we tend to think of death as a special kind of loss. We know what it means to lose a car key or a wallet, or break a vase or shrink a sweater, and so have something disappear permanently, but that's different from a loved one dying. Developmentally, children most often get to learn about the possibility of permanent disappearance apart from the meaning of death; it seems to me kind of a double-whammy to have to grasp them both in one event, which could be what happened to your daughter, given her age. This would make the working through process that much harder.

The emergent fear of death is also something than many children experience, -- not always as a result of an immediate brush with mortality; sometimes it can be triggered by a scary movie or story, or another child's speculation about death, or heaven/hell talk. I would be curious to unpack, as gently as possible, what specifically she is afraid of -- that it will hurt? that she will, or will not, be missed by others? that she will be deprived of specific experiences that she looks forward to? that she will be separated from you? (this can make even heaven seem scary to children in certain stages of attachment to parents) Then you may be able to address the content of the fear more effectively -- always, of course, treating it seriously, even if it has a certain absurd quality to the adult mind.

It is also possible that she feels abandoned by Kita, and is afraid that by her own dying she would leave you with the perception that she had abandoned you. It may sometimes be helpful, in the magical thinking ages, to reassure a child that people and animals almost always can't help dying; it isn't something they choose, and we don't hold them responsible for it; indeed, they usually do the best they can to keep living as long as possible.

With regard to qualifications like 'almost always', I agree that we cannot absolutely promise children that we or they won't die soon, but we can still give useful reassurances. "I'm not planning to die anytime soon; I hope to be around when you are all grown up and have children of your own..." "There is no reason to think that you won't live for a long time, and be a very old lady before you die..." These are true statements (assuming that's the case; if not, special responses that deal honestly with the situation are in order) that help to put death in proper perspective on the far horizon, but do not offer claims that are not within our control to meet.

I appreciate these thoughtful questions and discussion; thanks.
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Posted: Mon Mar 05, 2007 4:54 pm Reply with quote
Superhumanist Joined: 14 Feb 2007 Posts: 685 Location: Atlanta
[I hope it's OK if I "out" you as a PBB contributor, Kendyl! Very Happy ]

RevKendyl (the author of that eloquent post) is senior minister at the First Unitarian Society in Minneapolis and author of the centerpiece essay in PBB about helping children deal with death ("Dealing With Death in the Secular Family").

As minister of a fellowship that is majority humanist, Kendyl has a great deal of experience helping secular families confront issues around mortality. I'm delighted to see her in the forum!

Dale McGowan
Author/editor, Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers
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Posted: Tue Jun 05, 2007 7:58 pm Reply with quote
Redshirt Joined: 05 Jun 2007 Posts: 1
I'm SO glad that I found this.

I have two daughters 3 1/2 and 1 1/2. We are having to deal with the beginnings of the topic of death with the 3 year old. In February we too lost a beloved cat, and we had to put him to sleep. I had not seen this site, nor knew what to do or to say to her. We let her hold him, and told her that he was very sick and that Boris would go away. She did not seem to internalize it too much. Last she knew, Boris was on the bathroom floor when she went to bed. (A friend came over to personally euthanize him for us). The next morning the first thing my daughter did was go into the bathroom looking for him. Again, we just told him he went away. I absolutely was not going to feed her the heaven story just to make it easier on myself!! Since February she still asks about him, and twice has burst into tears saying she wanted him back.

Now, another development has hit. My parents both passed away 9 years ago and she is asking questions about my mommy and where is she, and can she see her someday, etc. I tried to explain that she is no longer here, and she cannot see her, but I will tell her about my mom and daddy. I about lost it when during this conversation she gently took my face in her hands and said "do you miss her?" She has NO idea how much!

Since that discussion it has come up often, and recently she's been having a terrible time sleeping at night, getting up and coming into our room, she has fits of screaming when I need to leave the house and doesn't want me to go. I am wondering if she's processing death and wondering if she's going to lose her mommy. I really have no idea, but this behavior is not like her. I am trying to be honest, but not scare her. It is such fine line!!!

Anyway, thanks much for this site. I really needed some place to go to get at least a little bit of a handle on this. It is so hard!
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Posted: Wed Jun 06, 2007 7:50 am Reply with quote
Member Beyond Belief! Joined: 18 Apr 2007 Posts: 498 Location: Cincinnati, Oh
Wow that's a tough one. I'm not sure if I have any great advice, but I would suggest that you keep talking to her about it.

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Posted: Wed Jun 06, 2007 10:25 am Reply with quote
Superhumanist Joined: 14 Feb 2007 Posts: 685 Location: Atlanta
I am wondering if she's processing death and wondering if she's going to lose her mommy. I really have no idea, but this behavior is not like her. I am trying to be honest, but not scare her. It is such fine line!!!

I can practically guarantee she's making the connection between the loss of your mom and the potential loss of hers. I strongly recommend taking a look at the essay by Kendyl Gibbons in Parenting Beyond Belief called "Dealing with Death in the Secular Family." Kendyl has so many years of wisdom around these issues and many suggestions for helping kids through these very natural concerns.

Dale McGowan
Author/editor, Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers
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Posted: Wed Jun 06, 2007 1:18 pm Reply with quote
Philosopher Joined: 18 May 2007 Posts: 25 Location: small-town Iowa
Four years ago our cat Betty died. It was very upsetting to my daughter Evelyn (then five). We both cried. My dear mom put Betty's body in the freezer (it was winter) and preserved it so Evy could help bury her in the back yard come spring. My mom is christian, but was respectful of my atheism and didn't try to bring god into it. My parents and Evy buried Betty and had a ceremony of sorts, each sharing a positive memory of Betty (I was out of town). My dear mom bought a cement marker of some kind and let Evy decorate it with permanent markers and they placed it over the grave.
I was stunned when, a month or so later, Evy announced that she wanted to get a cement slab to decorate for her own grave. I asked her if she thought she was going to die soon, and she said, "No, but you never know. I want to decorate it and put my name on it so when I die you won't forget that I was here." AARRGGGGG!!! I assured her that I would NEVER forget her, and that it was VERY unlikely that she would die before she was an old woman. She said she still wanted to make her tombstone and "we could put it in the living room for a decoration" until it was needed. I swallowed hard and said that we could do that if she wanted, but I would need some time to adjust to the idea. She sweetly agreed to let me "think about it," and the subject has not come up again.
Evy periodically asks me if Grandma and Grandpa are going to die soon, and what will happen to her if I die soon. I've explained that her grandparents are getting old and developing health problems, but it's hard to know how long they will live. They have told her they are not afraid to die, and they have talked with her about the things they have taught her and memories she will have of them (and memories they have of their own long-dead parents and siblings). I tell her I plan to live to be an old woman. She knows we do not all live as long as we expect (my best friend has terminal cancer and is 32, with two young kids), but I emphasize that I do many things to reduce the chances that I will die before she is all grown up (wear a seatbelt all the time, don't smoke or drink, wear a bike helmet, etc.) We've been talking about this lately now that I've decided to have my breasts removed. My family has a genetic predisposition for breast cancer (4 of the 6 females got it so far), and our oncologist has advised my sister and me (the two who haven't yet been diagnosed) to get mastectomies ASSAP. I told Evy I am doing it because I want to be around to raise her and maybe even enjoy grandchildren (or other rewarding experiences in old age). I have also talked with her at length about the many people who would love to take care of her were something to happen to me, and that I have a lot of life insurance to make sure they would have enough money to do so.
A neighbor boy (age Cool from a very conservative christian family announced the other day that he "wasn't a very good baby." When I asked him what he meant, he said, "God didn't call me home. He called my baby sister home because she was so good. Mom said god took her back because she was too good for Earth, so she got to go to a better place. I think I cried too much." (His baby sister died a few years ago.) My daughter was horrified by this and asked me, "Mommy, what could be better than being with your own family? I'm glad we don't believe in god, so he can't take me!" Maybe the neighbor woman is comforted thinking her baby's crib death was part of god's mysterious but loving plan, but I feel for her son. I told him I was sure he was a wonderful baby, and that we are very glad he is alive and well.
Another topic I've discussed with Evy is how my belief in no afterlife or god influences how I live. I've explained that I think this one life is all we get, so we have to be kind and thoughtful every chance we get, since there is no "do-overs". I say we need to be fair and responsible and take care of each other and the earth because we can't depend on a magic entity to settle the score or make it all better. We work for social justice because praying doesn't put food in anyone's stomach or a roof over anyone's head.
Evy still gets tearful thinking about Betty's death every few months or so. We reminisce about Betty, and I have reassured Evy that Betty is not cold or scared or lonely. Evy seems to take comfort in my explanation that dead things decompose and help other plants and animals grow. We also discussed how overcrowded the planet would get if nothing died, and how eventually there would be no room or resources for babies of any kind if there was no death.
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Posted: Wed Jun 06, 2007 1:19 pm Reply with quote
Philosopher Joined: 18 May 2007 Posts: 25 Location: small-town Iowa
That should say the neighbor boy is age eight--I don't know why that face got in there!
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Posted: Wed Jun 06, 2007 9:01 pm Reply with quote
Superhumanist Joined: 14 Feb 2007 Posts: 685 Location: Atlanta
My goodness, there's so much in that wonderful post!

Your daughter's comment that "she wanted to get a cement slab to decorate for her own grave" reminded me of a comment by my five-year-old, Delaney. She received a yellow afghan blankie as a gift on the day of her birth and has slept with it EVERY NIGHT OF HER LIFE since then -- over 1,700 and counting -- with the exception of a terrible five-night stretch after we left it in a hotel on vacation.

One day she told me, "When I go to college, I'll fold my blankie and lay it on my bed down by my feet."

"What a good idea, Lane."

"And when I die, I want somebody to put it on my grave."

The powerful thing about statements like this is that they don't understand the finality of death AND they do. They're in this fascinating middle ground, neither fully ignorant nor fully grasping. Hey, when it comes to death, I think that describes me as well.

I am firmly convinced that this early contemplation of death as a natural part of life will allow our kids will make peace with the idea of their own mortality much more smoothly and completely than someone who was suckled on immortality and had to cast it aside.

Dale McGowan
Author/editor, Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers
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