Talking to Kids About Death and Dying

What Does Their Grief Have to Say About Your Hope?

This past week I was in Knoxville, Tennessee talking about grief. While in Tennessee I observed how many people care, truly care about and commit themselves to the future of children.

One gentleman talked about the kids he works with and the death, violence, and systemic destruction they deal with on a daily basis. “Death is just another day. These kids have to grow callus or they just might lose hope.” He worries about these kids, and I wonder if it is true that they are callus. Coping skills and hope seem to go together to me; it’s a connectedness that might seem like a dichotomy to someone not paying attention. We don’t move away from despair towards hope, but often find that hope in the presence of pain. I think that is what keeps us going. Maybe the kids understand their reality and have developed coping skills to live in the presence of so much loss, but callus seems like a negative word to describe surviving.

Nonetheless, the word callus made me think about the volunteers at Good Grief, my colleagues, and myself. I often say to people while I am training or doing a workshop “if this work doesn’t impact your life, if you don’t live differently because of this, then you may in fact already be dead.” I really believe that. My life, that is to say the way I see the world, was changed as a result of the 2,500+ patients I had when I was a hospice Chaplain. My life continues to be impacted by the hundreds of kids I meet at Good Grief every year. Sure, there are days when I think everyone and everything is dying, as if everyone else got the memo that said, “this is the month to die” except me. But most of the time, I live in hope despite the days that are overwhelming with death.

Oh sure, I think this world has some huge problems. But, I don’t see them as new problems that are sending us to the bowels of no return, even if the media wants me to jump on that train. These problems have long been a part of the human condition, in various ways. I have hope for the improvement of the human condition because I have witnessed so many people experience joy after tremendous pain. I have witnessed strangers emerge from the shadows to offer love to the grieving when friends had long gone away. I have experienced the many mysteries that comprise our human experience, and I trust that the process-this imperfect process-is somehow working.

I’m learning how to be with the imperfect process that is life, while developing a flexible sense of hope. I arrived at this place in my life because I have been open to being shaped by others’ stories and realities, witnessing, and learning from them. I admit, when on occasion I cry during a movie I feel relieved that I have not “grown callus.” But, as my propensity for getting weepy when I witness love increases and my tendency to get weepy in the presence of suffering decreases, I see hope growing inside of me, moving me.

While we may spend a lot of time developing our facilitation, listening, administrative, marketing, or fundraising skills, I wonder how often we pause to see how our coping and loving skills are developing. How often do we check-in with “me, myself, and I” to see if hope is moving inside of us?

Well, what about it: how often do you stop, reflect on how this work is moving inside of you, and check to be sure you’re not already dead? What we do is the work of the living. Our living, too . . .


*This blog was originally published by the National Alliance for Grieving Children.