Talking to Kids About Death and Dying

This I Believe: Children Grieve

A few weeks ago I was invited to read an essay for NPR’s “This I Believe” in front of a live audience with Executive Producer, Dan Gediman.

Here is my essay:

When children grieve I believe in the power of love. Not the red heart stuff that we may be prone to print and repeat as mantras, like rattling off “I’m sorry for your loss. Xoxo” or “at least he isn’t suffering.”  I believe in the power of honesty and presence, the commitment to share empathy when everyone else is running away. When I sit with grieving children, I do not see them as broken nor do I view their lives as shattered because their mother or brother died—their childhood is not coming to an end. I believe in the love that moves children through broken moments and helps them find hope for the future. It looks like play and laughter and living and people talking openly about the dead. I believe in the word dead.

When our loved ones die we are not defined by their deaths, how they died, or the fact that Hallmark doesn’t write honest cards about how hard grief can be.  But when those we love grieve because of death, we are defined by what we say, how willing we are to not know the answers, and if we can get out of the way and not try to fix that which just is.

Grief is important and serves a purpose. Just like legs, arms, eyes, and ears, humans have always been born with love. And when you look at its undercarriage there you will find grief. Love does not die, but those we love do, and so when they are gone we grieve. Natural. It’s all so natural. And yet, so many people are willing to forget that children grieve, too.

When we forget that children grieve, we transform pain into a pathology and try to treat it with drugs, dishonesty, and silence, but it does not go anywhere, it does not move unless we love it and talk about it. Although people die, relationships continue and so too does the grief—the yearning and the remembering. Silence does not suppress the pain, it merely normalizes isolation.

I have seen two-year-olds, twelve-year-olds, and twenty-year-olds grieve the same person and each grieved differently. That unique, precious and never the same grief is as particular and at times peculiar as the person themself, which makes people uncomfortable because they seem to prefer boilerplate templates and basic knowledge about commonly accepted fundamentals.  And yet, we all grieve differently.

When death comes early—and it often comes too soon—I believe that children grieve and only love, our consistent and persistent love can make it easier.