This past weekend, I had the very unfortunate experience of attending the funeral for my cousin’s six week old baby that died unexpectedly. I distinctly remember getting the call at 3am from a family member about what had happened and I just couldn’t get back to sleep that night. I remember immediately checking on all of the kids and then getting them all in the bed with us, just so I could cuddle with them and thank God for their health and their life. I just couldn’t bear the thought of something happening to either of them. I knew that if I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t imagine how my cousin and her husband were even able to breathe at that very moment. I was at a loss for words. I cried for them. I cried for my own children. And I cried for all the mothers who have ever had to deal with such an extreme tragedy (including my own mother who lost a son at six months of age, and who would’ve been my older brother).
What do you say to the mother who is still producing milk for a baby she can’t nurse? What do you say to the father who had to witness his first born slip away and there was nothing he could do? What do you say to the five-year-old sister who doesn’t really understand that the baby brother she has grown to love and adore would not be coming back home, and she would no longer be able to hold him in this lifetime? I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. The only thing I knew how was to offer support. The only thing I knew how was to pray. The only thing I knew how was to just be there…to hold a hand, to give a hug, to be a shoulder to cry on.
The most crushing and heartbreaking thing is to see a baby in a coffin. I can’t imagine having to bury my own child. But there these parents were, burying their six week old who was a happy and healthy baby boy just days before. This unfortunate tragedy made me realize something: There are so many things we (even as a society) spend our time talking to our kids about—school, friends, money, bullying, sex, etc. But one conversation we had only barely scratched the surface on is death. We always talk about God and going to heaven after we die, but never really got into what that actually means. So although my two youngest didn’t really understand most of the conversation, we will continue to make it a regular conversation in the future. I sat down with all three of them after my son kept asking where I had been all day (after getting home from the funeral). Based off of our conversation (with my almost two, three and five-year-olds), here are some tips I wanted to share.
Don’t wait until a family member ( or someone really close to the family) dies before talking about it.
When my son first asked me where I was all day, I contemplated on whether or not to tell the whole truth. But I realized that, God forbid something happened to either of his little sisters, I wouldn’t want to have to deal with the additional burden of trying to explain death to him. Fortunately, they have never known anyone close to them that has died. But I’m hoping that when the time comes, these conversations will make it just a little easier.
Be open and honest.
The conversation grew after my son asked me what a funeral was. He then wanted to understand what happened at a funeral and who had died. He asked me questions about the baby, what his name was (which happened to also be his middle name) and what had happened. I just allowed him to continue to ask questions, while allowing myself to be as open and honest as possible.
Answer questions you have answers to, and don’t try to create answers for the ones you don’t have answers to.
My son asked a lot of questions (did I say a lot?) that I had no answers to. He wanted to know if anyone saw the baby go up to Heaven? He wanted to know what the baby was doing when he got there? He asked what kind of home the baby was living in? Rather than trying to make up what I thought would be good answers, I simply told him I didn’t know. And he was ok with that.
Acknowledge your own feelings.
I was still feeling sad about the earlier funeral and from seeing the parents in so much pain. So I talked through those feelings with my son so he understood why I was sad. It also gave him the understanding that it’s ok to be sad and to miss someone when they die.
Don’t avoid the words death or dying.
Once I realized that the terms “lost” and “passed away” were flying right over my son’s head, I decided to just use the words death, dying and dead. It made things easier to explain, and he was able to get a better grasp as to what I was actually talking about.
It definitely wasn’t an easy conversation to have, but it’s a necessary one. As the bible says, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Matthew 24:36.
BMWK: Do you talk to your kids about death? How have you handled the discussion if they’ve had to deal with the death of a loved one?