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I was faced with this question three times over the course of two weeks. And each time I chose to handle it differently.
Around 4 AM one early February morning, William received a call with the devastating news that his mother had passed away at the age of 69.
Luckily both boys slept through the agonizing outbursts of grief that came with the news.
I will never forget the sound of his voice and the words that he said in that moment.
It is forever seared into my brain and I can still feel the pain as it engulfed the room.
I don’t wish that moment on my worst enemy.
The rest of that day is hazy. But I know that I left a message for my boss that I would not be in that day.
I know that I took over getting our eldest ready and off to school for the day. And the rest is a blur.
Luckily, our little guy is too young to understand. However, our 8-year-old would be coming home early in the afternoon and we were not prepared.
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DEATH: THE SCARY SUBJECT
Talking to a child about death was not something we had ever thought about or planned for. And we both knew that we needed to approach it carefully to help him process it in the healthiest way possible.
We decided that William would be the one to tell him and I would be there as support to answer any questions.
We let him come home and finish his usual after-school routine in an effort to maintain as much normalcy as possible.
Then we asked him to join us in the family room. We started by explaining that we had something important to talk to him about.
That’s a hard one because there’s never a good way to start that conversation.
And I remember him looking to me to see if he could find some answer in my face as to what we would be discussing. So you know that there’s an instant where every conceivable fear was running through his brain.
And then he looked back to his father. And William simply said: “My mom passed away this morning.”
I don’t remember much of the conversation other than the fact that he didn’t seem to know how to react. He told his dad that he was sorry and gave him a hug, but then seemed awkward as if searching for the appropriate response.
So I asked him if he had any questions and he said that he didn’t. So we let him get back to his usual activities.
I wish that I’d taken some time to research this topic while he was away at school, but it was just so surreal. I wasn’t thinking clearly. But if I had been, I think this article on how to talk to kids about death would have helped us navigate it better.
The rest of the week was a flurry of activity as we made plans to fly back to Chicago for the funeral, mourning, and doing our best to keep up with our daily routines and obligations. We checked in with GQ periodically and he seemed to be handling it OK.
But at the end of the week, he expressed to me that he’d been having problems in class during the week. His teacher had noticed that something wasn’t right and had sent him to the school counselor. And he had worked through some of it with her because he’d been feeling sad and confused.
That was hard for me to hear. It made me feel like I had missed something.
He kept telling me he was fine and didn’t have any questions so I just believed him. All the while he was confused and scared inside but didn’t know how to express it. This whole concept of death and how it was now deeply involved in our family had thrown him off completely.
At that moment I was so thankful for his teacher and for the school counselor. But I still felt like I had failed him somehow.
My point is that even if a child seems to be handling it in stride, they probably aren’t…not really.
Death is a very scary and traumatic experience for anyone and that is highly magnified for children. This article may help you help your child through this challenging time.
The Parkland shooting happened two days after we got home from the funeral.
School shootings have become part of the everyday conversation now and are ever present on the news. My 8-year-old son has been participating in active shooter drills since preschool.
But he does not know about Parkland. He doesn’t know about Sandy Hook either. Nor Marysville Pilchuck.
Why? Because even though I want him to be prepared, I will not put that burden on my 2nd grader. That burden of kids, guns, school, and death…those concepts do not belong together.
I cannot have him worrying that he might get shot when he goes to school. That is something a child is not capable of processing properly.
Instead, I just hold my breath and pray that we all make it home safely every day. Because I am also at a school. I work for a university. So it’s very real for us.
This is an interesting article on talking to your kids about mass shootings.
This next one is really tough. After we got home we tried to get back into the swing of things and picked up where we left off with basketball.
GQ was one of two new players on the team this season. The other was a little girl that he ended up clicking with right away.
She was really good too, in fact, she made the first basket of the season for our team. She was really sweet and kept GQ on task when he got distracted by all the shiny things.
We had a game that Saturday. And we ended up sitting with her mom.
We were talking about how well her daughter was doing despite never having played before. Her mom was planning on getting her some new high top sneakers to better support her ankles and some Under Armour that she’d seen on Amazon.
We gushed over how much we both love Amazon Prime. And William begrudgingly vouched for my shopping addiction because he’s the one who always has to accept the daily package deliveries.
We won that game and everyone went home happy.
The next day that little girl’s life was tragically shaken off its foundation when her mother, her greatest cheerleader, unexpectedly passed away. She was only 30 years old.
The next moment she was staying with her grandmother while her world crumbled around her. Not long after, her father came from out of state to take her to live with him.
So not only had she lost the closest person to her, but she had to leave her home, her grandmother, her school, her team, her friends and everything that was ‘normal’ to her.
The trauma that she is experiencing ties my stomach in knots and brings me to tears every time I allow myself to think of it.
But we made the decision not to share this with Grant.
He noticed immediately that she wasn’t there at that next game; before we’d even learned of what had happened. I remember telling him that I’m sure she was just running late or maybe she was out sick.
And then Coach called the parents into a side room to break the news to us.
William and I, and some of the other parents, and the coaches have had many conversations about it since. But we’ve shielded the kids from it because this death is just too much to process.
And then last week, when we wrapped up this undefeated season, we honored them by signing the jersey that her mom had ordered to match her daughter’s. In fact, she had it personalized to say “[Censored]’s Mom”. We sent that along with some other items to the family out of state.
While they were signing, one of the older kids said “Oh…I know what happened, but I’m not gonna say.” Luckily Grant didn’t hear that, but I did ask him about it later.
I just asked if he’d heard anything about the gifts for our friend and he said “No, why?” and then followed up with the fact that he’d heard that she’d had to move. And I said “Yes, that’s true.” and just left it at that.
Many parents won’t be able to keep this information from their child due to different circumstances. In the event that you can’t shield your children from this, I think this article might be helpful.
HOW TO KNOW WHAT TO DO
So why did I choose to handle each of these situations differently? After much thought, it came down to the simple “need to know” question.
Can his daily life continue, uninterrupted, without this knowledge? If the answer is “yes”, then we do not inform him.
If the answer is “no”, then we have to figure out the best way to break the news to him carefully. And then work through it with him, even if he seems “fine.”
In the situations that we recently faced, two were black + white, but one was a little grey.
Obviously, we had to tell him that Dad’s mother (his grandmother) had passed. There was no way around that one.
And with Parkland, it was simply unnecessary to tell him and easy to keep from him by turning off the news and not discussing it in his presence. It will be a different story once he’s in middle school, but for now, we can still shield him from some of that ugliness.
But with the death of his friend’s mother, who was younger than us, it was a bit murky. I waffled back & forth a number of times trying to decide what was best.
At one point I thought it might be a good idea to present the idea for the two kids to become penpals. But every time I would get to the part where you kind of run through how that conversation would go in my head I stopped in my tracks.
I just couldn’t bring myself to tell my sweet boy that his friend’s mom had died. In the end, I think it was too much death in too short a time span.
But even without that aspect, it’s just too real. For an eight-year-old that would just be too scary and too close to home.
Because then they automatically fear for the safety of their own parents. At that age, they have a false sense of security that shields their innocence. And there is no reason to strip them of that prematurely unless life forces it.
In this case, I chose to let him keep that like a blankie to make him feel safe. We have that luxury while I know many other families don’t, but for now, I am just thankful for it.
And I just pray that the universe will take care of our little friend and give her a good life somehow.
So hug your sweet loves close and make the right decision for your family when it comes to discussing this difficult reality. I wish you all the strength in the world and just the right words when you need them. Hugs from me to you.