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Discussing Death with Kids in 5 Easy Steps

Discussing Death with Kids in 5 Easy Steps

Recently, a neighbor died, which opened the door for discussing death with kids in five simple steps:

  1. Just talk about it – if you’re sad or mad or depressed or even happy or relieved or whatever. Emotions are all okay.
  2. Just talk about it – what you think happens after death in whatever way makes sense to you.
  3. Just talk about it – my death, your death, everyone’s death.
  4. Just talk about it – how life goes one for the rest of us.
  5. Just talk about it – the ways your life was changed by the deceased.

We took them to the funeral where they were by far the youngest attendees. We walked in last (that’s how we roll) and I imagine many people thought, “are you crazy having your kids at a funeral?” In addition to the torture of cultural experiences, a funeral is another opportunity for memorable, learning memories.

But I think discussing death with kids is important – for all our emotional health.

Having lost my father at age 8 and then my mother at age 33, I was a “young orphan”. And I’ve thought a lot about death and our (as Americans) relationship with death.

A few months after the death of my mother, a friend asked “How are you doing? Or, wait – do you want me to talk about it? Are you okay talking about it? Is that wrong for me to ask? Oh, shoot. Sorry I brought her up.”

“Yes! Please ask me about it. Especially a few months down the line, please – ask away. It feels good to talk about her. I won’t get emotional – or if I do, so be it. But it feels good NOT to ignore the fact that I’ve had a massive life change a few months ago and now everyone walks on eggshells around me.”

That was eye-opening. I wanted to talk about my mom and the experience of losing her or getting accustomed to my new normal.

We suck at death in America. We’re uncomfortable addressing it with those in mourning (are we afraid of emotion, entirely?), think we’re bringing down the people who are going through a loss, afraid to discuss “nothing” after being selfish our entire lives, avoid thinking about our demise, and don’t know how to healthily talk about it or approach it. And certainly discussing death with kids is a topic avoided until it’s in our faces.

Look at the hysteria over “death panels” during the Obamacare debates and Sarah Palin’s talking points about “killing Grandma” and the fact that so much money is spent to prolong life by a few months when in reality we should be considering how best to healthily accept the end of life with quality rather than reflexively thinking that living on life support would be the active choice anybody actually wants. So discussing death with kids freaks us all out.

But I digress.

Unlike many other societies throughout world history, we don’t look at death as part of life. It’s to be avoided, so discussing death with kids is definitely taboo.

But accepting death and letting sadness flow through us is healthy.

Back to kids at a funeral.

I want my own to know that several things surrounding death are healthy –

  1. To be sad.
  2. To cry and to see other people cry.
  3. To know that death happens.
  4. To think fondly of the people we’ve lost and not repress their memory.
  5. To learn from the gifts of those we’ve lost.

Our loss was that of an elderly neighbor. She didn’t actually like my partner and I very much (long story for another post) but she was welcoming and loving to our kids (and still civil with us).

Moreover, she was an indefatigably generous woman who volunteered throughout the community and set a great example for the way I’d like to live as a septegenarian and octogenarian.

Most important (for her and her family) she lived a rich life full of family and experiences. She died ten years earlier than she should have, but at 87 she’d lived an enviable life.

So I emulate her.

And because she was a constant in my kids’ life, I wanted them to experience her death.

When we, as a family, paid respects to her visiting family, my older kid excitedly asked, “Can we go to the funeral?” like it was a birthday party.

Later, when I said, “Um, Sweets, that wasn’t really the way…”

She said (without rolling her eyes), “Yes, I know Daddy. That wasn’t the way to talk about a funeral.”

Glad we established that.

We checked out a book at the library entitled The Funeral. It was sweet to see a funeral through the eyes of an 8-year-old, except that this 8yo was able to run around in the church playground during the entire service and got to eat lots of refreshments and cookies. (I planned to force them to sit quietly in the church for at least 45 minutes.)

So of course my kid asked, “Will there be refreshments?”

“Yes, sweetie, I think there will be refreshments, but that’s not what a funeral is actually about.”

“Daddy, I know!” (This time, there was an eye roll.)

The night before the funeral, my younger kid said, “Tomorrow will be sad.”

“Yes it will,” my partner said. “But that’s okay.”

We dressed up and drove to the beautiful New England church.

The service clipped along and had the right balance of celebration and mourning. A few hymns were sung, the minister welcomed those in attendance who weren’t comfortable with religion and stated, “We are about freedom, here – the freedom to honor the human experience in whatever way is comfortable for you.”

There was a little Jesus, a little God, a little worship, a few laughs and a lot of humanity.

Ultimately, my kids have had enough church experiences that they knew what to expect. They were antsy, but not obnoxious. They heard words like death and mourning and God and whatnot.

When the deceased woman’s son broke down, briefly, during his eulogy, my older kid turned to me with a gasp, “Is he crying?”

“Yes,” I said.

Her eyes widened as she shifted to see my face straight on.

“Are you crying?” she asked.

“A little bit,” I said.

My eyes were wet. I was thinking about my mom, my life, my kids growing too quickly, my aging in-laws, and then also about how awesome this woman was (even if she didn’t really like me) and my kids’ loss of the intriguing old woman who lived nearby and always welcomed them into her home. (Not to mention the time they walked right into her house when she wasn’t there because they wanted to see the view from her second floor…unbeknownst to us.)

These are all losses and part of life’s journey.

And it’s good to be sad.

And for my kids to see me sad.

When there were references to the incident that applied to our falling out with the deceased, my partner and I shared a smirk. Bygones were bygones. Let’s celebrate life of an inspirational woman.

And afterward, there were refreshments.

Except my kids were disgusted by the fancy finger foods that included smoked salmon mini toasts, cucumber sandwiches, egg salad, fresh vegetables and turkey mini-wraps.

There were cookies, tho. And my little monsters were forced to eat some cucumber sandwiches and raw veggies before having about six cookies.

Each.

My younger kid returned twice, on his own, to the display of pictures to see our neighbor in her prime and through her years – piloting a sailboat in the 1950’s, laughing with her children as a young mother, and laughing with her children as an old woman.

We greeted all of her kids, all of whom did a good job brushing past the fact that she wasn’t our biggest fan, and thanked us for coming.

It was important to us – to honor her, and to teach our kids about death and loss and mourning and sadness.

I said as much to one of the daughters-in-law, and she said, “That’s beautiful that my mother-in-law’s life keeps on teaching. That’s just what she’d hope for.”

We left feeling fulfilled. And sad. And that’s okay.

And full of cookies.

When you’ve got friends who’ve had loss, I ask you not to shy away from talking about the loss. It’s good to sit in sadness with those who mourn.

It brings us all closer and helps the grieving process.

Death shouldn’t be shunned or ignored. It should be discussed and embraced and accepted and acknowledged.

It’s healthier for us all that way.

Don’t Remove My Kid’s iPad

Don’t Remove My Kid’s iPad

Recently, a friend without kids suggested I should remove my kid’s iPad.

I was ready to throw down.

More specifically, he posted a HuffPo article suggesting the prohibition screentime for kids until age 12. Alongside, the friend wrote, “While I’m not a father, it breaks my heart to see children in restaurants staring mindlessly at screens. I was raised to paint and draw and entertain myself with puppet shows. If I’m ever a dad, I’ll never let my kid play with an iPad.”

Thank goodness several other parents lashed out before I needed to.

I snarkily/charmingly wrote, “You’re more than welcome to come spend four straight days in a cramped apartment with my kids, eat out at a restaurant with them, all sans iPad. If you can do it, then you can be my nanny and I will worship the unplugged ground you walk on. Oops. ‘Scuse me. 2 yr old screaming to play w my phone. Gotta go.”

I think screen time limits of 30 minutes are a good idea. But does my kid sometimes spend 60 minutes watching homemade YouTube videos of children opening Thomas the Train toys? Absolutely.

Do I think I’ve derailed his future imagination?

Do I think he will entertain himself with puppet shows in coming years?

Dear Lord, let it be when I’m not around.

One of our favorite children’s books is a parody of Goodnight, Moon entitled Goodnight, iPad. My then-2yo knew how to read “Nooooo!” on the illustration where Grandma tosses all electronics out the window.

Every generation thinks the latest innovation signals the death knell of childhood imagination: Barney, Mortal Kombat, Real Houswives of Atlanta.

Maybe so. But we’re still here.

Ain’t it funny how the “perfect” parents are those who don’t yet have banana fingerprints marring their iPad screens? While they’re busy judging haggard parents, I hope they indulge in a nap and enjoy a leisurely dinner at Babbo for me.

Having calmed my reactive rage, I should’ve just responded on Facebook to my friend:

Pal, you should have stopped at “While I’m not a father…”

Don’t forget sensationalist articles like “Your iPad is making your child stupid” are like 24-hour news segments causing reactionary fear. Fear is sexy and drives internet traffic.

How about this much lengthier study of child screen time in THE ATLANTIC? In short, it says, ‘everything in moderation.’

I know. Moderation is so unsexy.

I find screen prohibition unnecessary and perhaps detrimental for the touch-screen generation. Why not cultivate technological whizzes?

I also know that a happy parent translates to a happy child. Thirty minutes of quiet time thanks to my cheapest babysitter, Elmo, works wonders for my happiness. Thirty minutes matching letters to their outlines, counting ladybugs or watching THOMAS THE TRAIN makes me a happier (and better) father all while engaging and educating my kiddo.

Before becoming a parent, I made categorical prohibitions about how I planned to parent:

‘No sugar, no TV, no disposable diapers.’

Now? I think teaching my kids limits is more effective than deprivation. (Cloth diapers were a straw that broke my sleep-deprived back. “Seventh Generation” diapers are my compromise.) I’m just trying to cope the best I can.

Please don’t remove my kid’s iPad.

Movie Review: A Dog’s Purpose

Movie Review: A Dog’s Purpose

I’m late to the game, but having recently watched it, A Dog’s Purpose becomes more than just a movie, it is a teaching tool for profound topics. I’ve got all the feels for it – a movie that’s beautifully shot, well-acted, charmingly written, and poses questions about mortality, kindness and mindfulness for children and grown-ups alike.

A Dog’s Purpose follows a dog’s quest for his, er – purpose?, over the span of several reincarnated lives as several men’s and women’s best friend.

“Bailey”, charmingly voiced by Josh Gad (so you can tell your children “That’s Olaf’s voice.”) cycles through several lives, some thrilling, some sad, some long, some short.

If you’ve ever had a dog in your life, you best bring some tissues. I mean – why DO we cry so much over the loss of cinema canines? I’m about to foist “Old Yeller” and “Where the Red Fern Grows” onto my kid because of the unforgettable tragedy and emotion it conjured in my youth. I can’t wait to share that experience with her. Am I an emotional masochist?

But I digress.

What particularly moved me was the provocative questions the movie inspired: thoughts about reincarnation, mortality, kindness and mindfulness.

The day after watching, on the way to school, my younger kid asked, “Why do dogs have many lives but humans don’t?”

We then had several blocks of talking about profound human beliefs. That led to more spirituality, speculation and religion after I said, “Religion is often what comes from people asking un-answerable questions about the world and about life and particularly about what happens to beings after death.”

He responded, “Uh-huh.”

It was 8:15 in the morning. Too much for him, too.

Anyway.

Talking about the life cycle while watching A Dog’s Purpose when children ask “why does he have to die?” and “Oh, good, he came back to life.”

It’s tough to chat with children about death, but there are beautiful and constructive ways of doing so and develop constructive life-long coping mechanisms. Death is part of life. We shouldn’t deny that fact from our kids.

Kindness entered our post-viewing conversation as we observed the treatment of the dogs by their owners. Some were neglectful, some strict, some were…uh…euthanizing, but most were quite loving. Kindness isn’t a hard concept for children, but it’s often glazed over or discounted. We all could use more modeling of kindness, right?

Finally (and most profoundly for me): mindfulness. Throughout the movie, Bailey is on the search for his (and in one life her) purpose. Discussing with children, “Why am I here?” and “Do I have a purpose in life?” ain’t easy. It’s tough for adults, too. But  it’s a question that renders life stimulating for our feeble brains. (That old “the unexamined life…” adage.)

By the end of the movie, Bailey shares with the viewer: “So, in all my lives as a dog, here’s what I’ve learned:”

  • Have fun (obviously)
  • Whenever possible, find someone to save, and save them.
  • Lick the ones you love.
  • Don’t get all sad-faced about what happened and scrunchy-faced about what could.
  • Just be here now.

Be here. Now.

Isn’t that simple and wonderful and pure?

Life would be so much better for us all if we relentlessly sought a purpose, played more, didn’t get scrunchy-faced about the past or the future and learned to be here – now.

Simple and thought-provoking, A Dog’s Purpose is a must-watch for families.

Giving Thanks: My Mom Made Me a Dad

Giving Thanks: My Mom Made Me a Dad

Last night I was giving thanks by opening a beer seconds after putting my kids down, I felt gratitude that they most likely won’t wake for 10½ hours. I am so lucky to have sleepers.

As I sipped, I thought about gratitude. It was a Hallmark Channel moment. And I was reminded: the many ways I’ll be giving thanks this (and every) year is to my mom…for making me a dad.

I write about her in the past tense. Several years ago, she died unexpectedly from a cardial arrhythmia. Doctors said it’s the way we all want to go: one second you’re here, then you’re not.

Several people told me, “Ohmigosh, you’re an orphan!” (a label that never occurred to me til it was pointed out.) But there are worse tragedies in the world than my personal situation. Much worse. But in our culture, 32 is young to be parent-less.

Thanks to our close relationship where nothing was left unsaid, I wasn’t bereft. I was sad, but I’d be ok. That’s a tribute to her.

(more…)

Yesterday: A Good Day Not to Die

Yesterday was a good day not to die.

My father died when I was eight years and fifty days old.

Today, my child is eight years and fifty-one days old, and has officially lived with a father longer than I did.

That is a crazy milestone that I’ve anticipated for years. I’ve calculated it down to the day (clearly). There’s a weird sense of relief – to think I’m sparing my kids the tragedy that befell me.

After the loss of my parents, I’ve of course maintained memories, their presence is always with me, but sadly, their memories fade in my mind as I grow older and busier and my own brain calcifies.

But I never, ever forget their death days. Every single time I see or hear the date (November 14th), in whatever form (11/14) it gives me pause. These simple numbers are singed into every crevice of my brain. With every conjuring of these calendrical digits, my mind takes an instantaneous detour from its intended path.

And I’m grateful for “taking pause”. My life is more based in emotion than math, so it’s refreshing to have numbers divert my forward momentum. There’s nothing emotional or messy about numbers. They just are.

And “11/14” doesn’t make me emotional or messy. It just makes me be. And it reminds me I’m experiencing a day unique from other days – like visiting a museum or marching in a rally or celebrating a holiday.

So. Back to life with/without my dad.

He was struck down after a heinous battle with brain cancer. It was gnarly, given his war wounds from his time as a U.S. Marine, his linebacker stature, and the tragedy of his young age. For two years he lived with a terminal diagnosis. He tackled it head-on with humor and determination. He kept on keepin’ on because of his mighty strength of character. And when his body expired, everyone in the family was relieved…because it was an exhausting fight.

I cannot imagine the anguish his sickness caused him or my mother – two people halted from pursuing all-American dreams at age 38; not in a quick tragedy, but in a drawn-out, gruesome one. And all while trying desperately to maintain a sheen of calm for their 8yo kid.

Having aged several years more than my father when he died, I see just how damn lucky I am – to witness my children’s growth and to have my health; to prioritize my kids’ development over everything else, and to have the luxury of getting wrapped in petty day-to-day crap that shouldn’t matter (but luckily does) because my life is not reduced to survival.

I wish I took more pauses on a daily basis to be present, and not just on visibly jarring number-days like my parents’ death days. (I should definitely get on that “meditate 3x/wk” on my vision board before I regret not having done so.)

I might burden my kids with the emotional weight that they have it better than I did when I was eight years and fifty days old. I think death isn’t something to be shunned or hidden, but rather confronted and discussed.

Or maybe I should just hug them an extra few times.

And have a drink to cheers my dad.

And just keep keepin’ on…with an occasional pause for gratitude.