Talking To Your Kids About Death

Today is exactly seven years since my mum died. I still think about her almost every day. Every time I think about her I wish she was alive. I wish she was alive to see the kids grow up. I wish she was alive for me to ask those questions to her that my dad can’t answer. I mean, he’s okay at remembering certain things about me and my brother when we were the same ages as my kids, but there are still many things that I ask him and he goes blank on me, and whilst he used to say “your mother would have known that” it gets left with the “I don’t know” answer now.

Earlier this month whilst driving home from the shops with the boys the youngest, who is five, asked me the most random question;

“Dad, can you walk when you are dead?”

I can’t for the life of me remember what was being discussed, or what may have been on the radio to have prompted that question, but I do remember that it was so left field that the question took me by surprise.

“No, you can’t walk when you are dead because you are dead.”

He’s definitely too young to watch The Walking Dead or even know about it, but maybe he’s seen zombies on cartoon shows. Photo credit: Pixabay

Our youngest son is the most inquisitive of children. He asks more questions about volcanoes, dinosaurs, animals, people and life in general than our first born ever has, and probably ever will. And now he’s asking about death.

From the shopping centre we left to the hardware store we were driving to the line of questioning was as random as the first question he asked, but about different topics. He didn’t have a follow up question about death at the time as he was distracted by the construction work of the new rail-line that is being built in the North West of Sydney. He loves asking questions about that project as well.

It was only about a minute after we jumped back in the car after leaving the hardware store that he asked another question about death.

“Dad, what do you do when you are dead?”

How did I answer? I’ll get to that shortly.

I like some of the concepts of Heaven, but I don’t believe it to be true so it will not be something that we will teach our kids about. Being spiritual however, with both my wife and I holding different beliefs about what that means and what that entails, one thing that we both agree on is that you can still reach out an talk to our loved ones who have died, and that they are always with you and watching over you. For my wife, she believes that more so as the spirit being a physical thing whereas I see it more as a concept based on the memories you have of the dead person, and the love that you have and will always have for them.

Although I don't believe in Heaven or the afterlife, I am happy to acknowledge that the memories of my mother and mother-in-law sometimes shine down in sunbeams. Photo credit: Modern Father Online on Instagram.
Although I don’t believe in Heaven or the afterlife, I am happy to acknowledge that the memories of my mother and mother-in-law sometimes shine down in sunbeams. Photo credit: Modern Father Online on Instagram.

For me, I see people like John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, John F Kennedy, Gough Whitlam, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Thomas Edison as almost immortal. Their legend lives on in their music, art or speeches; their spirit, or their essence lives on through their legacy as being great artists, musicians, or world leaders. And whilst I have named people who are household names to many, I believe that our own loved ones, those who made an impact in our lives and left their mark in our own little part of the world will also achieve some sort of immortality, if only through the memories they left behind that we will pass on to our kids and maybe even their kids.

I have never been one to sugar coat answers to the kids because it is better that they learn the truth from me than learn myths or blatant lies from others. So how did I answer his question about what what we do when we die? With the truth.

“Well, when you die you either get buried underground in a box and you rot away into the ground, or you get cremated after you die which means you get put into a fire and turned into ashes that your family can keep or spread them over your favourite place.”

At the time he asked the question we were approaching a set of traffic lights where the largest cemetery in the North West of Sydney is. As we rounded the corner I pointed out the cemetery and asked him and his brother if they could see the small buildings.

“Those small building are called crypts or vaults. Some families buy them and stick the coffins of their dead family members inside and they go and visit them there. And those walls where the flowers are are memorials where they either have little boxes in the wall to stick the ashes, or sometimes just a little plaque which is a metal sign that has the details of the dead person on them so that the family can remember them. We didn’t bury Grandma Pat (my mum) or Gran Carol (my wife’s mum) and both of them were cremated.”

Nice view, well, not for the dead though.

I feel that being honest with the kids about death will allow them to appreciate life so much more, and be respectful of other people’s lives. By taking away the imaginary world of fluffy white clouds, pearly gates, golden harps and Philadelphia Creamed Cheese brought to you by muscle bound and ruggedly handsome men wearing angel wings, knowing that this life is the only life they’ll have will hopefully mean that they will be inspired to live it to their fullest potential.

I talked to a friend about this and she was amazed that I spoke so openly and so blunt about death. Her own kids are both a year older than my first born and second born respectively, and yet she felt that discussing death with the was something that she was not up to yet. When the questions have been asked about their own grandmother who died last year, she has changed the subject and avoided it altogether. And that’s okay. That is perfectly okay. Discussing death is not something that everyone deals with the same way.

For me, I think it is important. To me, death is a part of life. Okay, so it’s the final part, but it is still something that we will all experience. Every. Single. One. Of. Us.

Footnote: I started writing this exactly three weeks ago today and I have meant to come back to it and finish off this train of thought that I had, but I don’t know where I want to take this other than to open it up to my readers to keep the conversation about talking about death alive (oh the irony). Since I started writing this there have been further conversations with my kids involving death, and further conversations with other people about the topic. I really wish every day that the death of a close loved one was not something that I had to deal with, but whilst I keep talking about my mother or mother-in-law, and as I discuss the topic of death with other parents I see that it is a very personal thing.

Have you discussed death with your kids or is it something you’re not ready to do?


3 thoughts on “Talking To Your Kids About Death

  1. This is something I have been thinking about and also poking away at writing a post about. My dad died in August and while my kids and I have had some cursory conversations about it, I don’t feel that we have had a substantive conversation about death, his death and how they feel. I was so busy dealing with his affairs and life in general with the start of the school year etc. that I haven’t had much time to breathe let alone figure out talking with my kids . Really it is a matter of making the time for what in my mind will be a longer conversation, but in all likelihood will be a shorter conversation than i imagine.

    My kids sort of believe in heaven and like you I am an atheist. I haven’t bothered to have any big religion conversations with them so far. Religion plays no role in our lives so it hasn’t really come up. I guess this conversation is a chance to cover two big topics at once I guess…

    Anyway, thanks for sharing. It helps.

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