Talking to Kids About Death and Dying

Showtime Puts Children’s Grief on Television

When “Little,” Julia, and Andrew confronted their mother’s death, they did so like any teenagers would. They told her to go screw herself. Their reactions to their mother’s brain cancer were real, honest, and unashamed, just like Time of Death, the new documentary series from Showtime that follows them and seven other families through the last days of terminal illness.

Maria, the teens’ mother, presents herself, at first, like a mom in control who loves to garden, hug her kids, and tackle breast cancer. She is like that old Lance Armstrong we used to love, but instead of a bike she had a trowel and a potty mouth. Maria is charming, her children are beautiful, and at first you wish you did not know how the story ends. But then, as a viewer, you watch the story unfold and see two teens and a young adult—kids who had grown accustomed to living with a sick mom—respond to the situation like most teens do during tough times. They share all of their thoughts and feelings in front of a camera. Maria, with metastasized tumors in her brain and a rapidly shifting personality, shared her thoughts right back.

As you watch the six part series, which airs on Fridays at 9pm, you’ll be reminded that we Americans have forgotten how to die. Some of us figure out how to do it well, like Lenore Lefer does in episode two. She turns 75 right before her death and comes to us with 25 years of professional, end-of-life experience. Lenore is sweet, a bit funky, and I want her to be at my deathbed. However, her pancreatic cancer takes her quickly and all she wants to do is love. Nicolle, a 19-year-old dying of melanoma shows us that 19-year-olds know how to keep up with the wisdom of 75-year-olds at the end of life, embracing her last days with gratitude and love. Nicolle approaches her death with courage, and while watching her die is gut-wrenching, it’s the pure love and admiration of her parents and little sisters that consumes the entire tissue box.

Let’s be honest, Ernest Becker wasn’t too far off in his book “The Denial of Death.” The title is self-explanatory. While we consume death all over television and through the news, death—up close and in-your-face death, even our personal deaths—is quite foreign to most Americans. Time of Death changes that in a very big way. And, in my opinion, more importantly shows us into the world of grieving children.

Grieving children spend their childhoods trying to overcome the clichés we force on them, as we have forgotten how to talk about death, especially in front of the children. Maria embodies this disconnect in her secrecy about her declining health and her desire to protect her children’s innocence. A nurse tells Maria, in plain and simple terms, that the only way to help her kids is to be honest. And with honesty, Time of Death simply opens the door and shows us how well-aware children and teens are when it comes to death. While many viewers may be taken aback and inspired by the documentary’s unflinching stories, the careful eye will see how important this film is for telling the story of children, which the acclaimed Swiss psychiatrist, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross called our “forgotten mourners.”

Intimately viewing these vulnerable moments might feel dirty at first. As a former hospice chaplain, I have lost my sense for those feelings because I have been privy to so much intimacy. But back to Becker, who said “[a person] cannot endure his own littleness unless he can translate it into meaningfulness on the largest possible level.” The eight families and the dying wanted us to witness and learn. I imagine they learned a great deal, too, about themselves and their last moments together. The dying learned to keep on loving when they were afraid, surrender to the inevitable, and let go once their affairs were in order. While some might feel like voyeurs, I simply feel like a privileged guest with something to learn from each scene, just like my visits to many deathbeds when I was a chaplain.

While we are metaphorical flies on the wall, I believe the families will one day find this documentary to be like watching old Christmas videos from the 1980’s. And, down the road when they have forgotten the sound of their loved one’s voice or the details of those last days, they only have to press play. In that way, Showtime has given them a gift.

In the same light, when “Little,” Julia, and Andrew reflect on the difficult things they all said to each other, they will be reminded of how hard those last months were, the toll it took, the personality-altering tumors in their mother’s brain, and the courage it took to make it through each day. So, while some cringe worthy things were shared that made the series hard to watch, we know that the kids have the opportunity to hit rewind, reestablish a messy context, forgive, and better understand each other.

For most grieving children, however, that is not the norm. They are forced to process their reality through their memories, fears, uncertainties, and hopes.  Nicolle’s death and all the children and teens captured remind us that while the road to the cemetery may be long or short, the road to normalcy after losing a parent or sibling is most often very long and requires ample support. After watching this documentary, I do not believe anyone would disagree. The question for me is whether viewers will start to invest in support programs that help children who are grieving, especially having so profoundly witnessed the impact on Maria’s kids.

As we watch people die and children grieve, the cameras bring us right to the edge while we stand hand-in-hand with the ending of lives—the body on dry-ice, the crematorium, and jaws gaping open as death settles. And, it is normal, natural, and feels just like it should. 

The series reminds our collective consciousness—a society that has forgotten how to talk about dying and how to support the grieving—that death is not a scary anomaly, but rather a moment we must all come to know. Time of Death holds up a mirror for us to see our mortality, and more importantly how we want to live before we arrive in our deathbeds. To witness someone die is to remind us that we are alive, and the eight people we watch die tell us, repeatedly, that how we live our lives truly matters. Anyone who is paying attention will see that this is six hours on living.

When faced with our own death or the deaths of those we love, the moments captured in Time of Death show us that there is no right or wrong way, but each step of the way is ours and how we choose to let go is the only thing we can control at our time of death.