Talking to Children about Death

If you’ve ever spent any time with our family, you might already know this: the Potts kids are super comfortable talking about death. Unsettlingly so, if you ask me. Sam routinely hands me pictures he’s drawn, telling me,

“You can keep this.

“Until you’re dead.”

Pardon the pun, but it really kills the moment.

People often ask how I handle talking about death with our kids. Whether it’s just on their mind at the time, or if a priest’s family is supposed to be the authority on death, I’m not sure. Either way, let’s just say it comes up. A lot.

There are a number of things I’ve braced myself for discussing with our children: guns, racism, drugs, sex. But death was never one of them. We spend a lot of time outside, which happens to be the perfect place to regularly discuss the dying of bugs, birds, trees, flowers, ducks, chickens. It’s part of regular conversation around here and I’ve never shied away from it. Because things and people die. They just do.

Matt’s parents stayed with us last fall and – while they were here – had to put to sleep their beloved boxer, Benkei. It was a sad and confusing time for the kids, and it generated a very specific question from Millie: “Where exactly did he go?”

Fortunately, I’m as comfortable admitting I don’t know something as my kids are comfortable talking about death. That is to say, super comfortable.

I went about as far as I could go, all the way to Benkei’s ashes waiting at the veterinarian’s, but Millie remained unsatisfied still about where Benkei really went. So it ended with a shrug of the shoulders, an exasperated sigh, and an “I don’t know, Millie. I’ve never died before.”

I suspect she’s still waiting for someone who knows the right answer.

Growing up, I had a very close relationship with my dad’s mom. She was the sort of grandma kids dream about: she never said no, and she always had unsupervised bowls of M&Ms, right at eye level, just begging to be eaten. We only had to alert her when they needed refilling.

She was awesome.

I had a very hard time when I learned she was going to die. The thought was unbearable. I hadn’t a clear idea about where she was going or what would happen to her afterward, so – like Millie – nothing seemed to do. I did have visions of her meeting up with my grandpa, which was somewhat comforting. But I was embarrassed to admit it involved them holding each other – ever so happily – on a fluffy cloud somewhere.

Even now, I don’t know where she is, if anywhere, or what she’s doing, if anything.

I don’t know how anyone could say they know for sure.

But I know for certain what happens to me when someone else dies.

I remember them.

I can remember the smell of my grandma’s house, the feel of her skin, the way she laughed, and the way she sipped her tea. I can remember the sound of her voice and the sigh she made when she sat down in a chair. I can remember the way her feet looked when she took off her shoes, and the imprint on her nose when she took off her glasses. I can remember the way she shuffled over to the ringing phone and the way she held her purse on her arm.

And every single one of those memories is crystal clear when I hear the clink-clink-clink of M&Ms being poured into an empty bowl.

It’s as if I just saw her yesterday. As if she never died.

I don’t know if she’s reunited with my grandpa (though I hope she is). I can’t say for sure. But I know she’s very much alive in my heart through these vivid memories of how she looked, how she talked, and how she made me feel when I was around her.

And she’s especially alive when I hold a bag of M&Ms in my hand when I cut off the top of the bag like she used to do, when I jiggle them in my hand before giving them to Millie or Sam.

This is how I’ve tried to explain death to Millie and Sam: I don’t know where people go when they die. I just know that you can keep them in your heart if you remember what you loved about them, and you remember the things you used to love doing together.

Maybe this is what people mean by Heaven. Maybe it’s not the fluffy cloud after all but rather a hard-to-articulate feeling that just sort of makes you feel better about losing someone that was really important to you. Either way, it makes a lot of sense to me, and – I hope – to Millie and Sam and Danny.

Millie told me the other night: “Mommy when you’re dead, and I’m working in the garden, I’ll feel you in my heart.”