Talking to Children About Death and Dying

Grief has been all around me recently.  Two people close to me lost family members this past month. I didn’t share this with my daughter, since she did not know the people who passed away. Yet for some reason, maybe because she is such a sensitive being, she has been asking about death and dying.father and daughter

I’ve wanted to write about it, but have not known what to say. Whenever my daughter asks me about dying, I am confronted with my own resistance and fear.

She looks to me for comfort and reassurance but I don’t know how to talk to her about death in a way that doesn’t make her feel scared. It doesn’t help that as a society we have issues with the end of life. Most people around me are in complete denial of its inevitability. 

My daughter is four years old and seems acutely aware that death is not reversible. The other day we were telling her about my husband’s godfather, who passed away before she was born. He holds a special place in our family and we speak of him often. Mid-conversation our sweet child began to weep, overcome with sadness that she will never get to meet him.

In that moment I did the best I could. I talked about how when people die, their bodies are no longer with us, but that they live in our hearts. I explained that we keep them with us by remembering them. I admitted that no one really knows exactly what happens after we die. Maybe we become a part of nature, flying through the stars, maybe we live nestled in one another’s memories, maybe there is a land of the remembered like the magical places we saw portrayed in the children’s movies Coco and The Book of Life.

She was soothed. So I left it at that. With this age group less is more. They simply need their curiosities honoured and not dismissed, in simple terms that they can understand.

A few months ago my daughter asked me how she was made. I replied: “Daddy and I made you from love.” And that was enough. She now tells anyone who will listen that she was made from love. Later, she will need more information. She will be ready for more, and she will ask the questions and I will answer openly. For now she got an answer she can make sense of.

It’s the same with death. I tell her the truth in a way she can grasp. Death is not “sleep,” or “rest,” or “going away.” It means we won’t get to see that person again. Our bodies are a part of nature and everything in nature has a cycle of living and dying. And yet the love we have for one another lives on. I teach my daughter that my love and all the love around her will always live in her heart.

For now, it’s enough. It comforts her. And it comforts me too.

How do you talk about death and dying with young children? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Challenges · Communication

Making Space for Your Child’s Anger

As a child I could throw a tantrum like no other. Like most children (and many adults), I didn’t know how to process anger. And when I acted out, the adults in my life responded with more anger.

It makes total sense. Anger is aggressive, combative and scary. Orbiting rage prompts our nervous system to react with pexels-photo-236215fight, flight, or freeze.

When a child is angry, adults usually engage with a fight response. Maybe it’s because a child’s rage can feel like a challenge to our authority. We instinctively feel we have to make our anger bigger than theirs so that they remember who is boss.

This response is deeply flawed. It is based on the assumption that the child is raging at you, and that this is about their respect for you, when it’s actually more about the fact that developmentally they don’t know how to calm down. When you respond with more anger, this only fuels the fire, making the situation worse than it needs to be.

And as far as authority goes, nothing diminishes your credibility as the alpha dog more than flying off the handle. The true pack leader is calm and assertive, putting everyone at ease because it’s clear they have everything under control.

I have worked hard to create an environment in my home where both safety and anger are honoured. Here’s what works for me when my four year old daughter gets mad.

Normalize Anger

Anger is not bad. It’s just a feeling like any other. Sometimes people process anger in unhealthy ways, but anger is not a bad thing. It just needs ventilation and a chance to move through the body. In our home we read a lot of books about feelings, some of our favourites are In My Heart and Today I Feel Silly. We talk about all the feelings, including anger, as just a part of being human.

Set Limits

Not every angry impulse is a productive one. Limits create safety for children and those around them. My daughter knows I will not allow her to use her hands to hurt someone. She can’t throw breakable things or engage in hazardous behaviour. She can’t direct her anger at people since it might scare them. Her feelings are always okay, but some actions are not.

Provide Tools

I teach my daughter strategies she can use when anger erupts.  We encourage her to get some space, punch pillows, throw soft toys and yell. When she gets mad she makes a beeline for her room and we can hear her wailing on her pillows, throwing teddy bears and shrieking in frustration. But not for long. After a brief spell, she emerges calm and contrite, like yesterday when she smiled and said proudly: “I got the anger out of my body mama.”

Don’t Mirror the Behaviour

When your child escalates, focus on calm. Feel your feet on the ground, keep your expression neutral and your voice even. Breathe. This simple (but not easy!) resistance to being a mirror is sometimes enough to throw a wrench in the spokes of a tantrum.

Don’t Take it Personally

As I learned from Dr. Deborah MacNamara in her book Rest, Play, Grow:

When we make sense of a child, when we start to understand the developmental reasons for their actions, their aggression can feel less personal, their opposition less provocative, and our focus can turn to creating the conditions that foster growth.

My daughter’s anger isn’t about me. It’s simply a natural reaction to being thwarted. It’s my role to help her make sense of her emotions and express them safely and appropriately.

Instead of fearing and silencing a child’s anger, we can teach them to process it effectively so they don’t grow up to become adults who can’t.

Do you have some great ways to help young people process anger in a constructive way? Please share them in the comments below.


Don’t Beat Yourself Up, but Don’t Let Yourself off the Hook Either

I yelled at my daughter this morning.

Even though I apologized immediately and we hugged it out, I still feel terrible. I am wearing the guilt like an itchy sweater.

parentingThis reminded me of a conversation I had several years ago, before I was a mother myself. I was talking with a close friend about a tough day she’d had with her little ones. In a moment of overwhelm, she lost her temper and yelled at them. Since this was not aligned with who she wanted to be, she felt bad about it.

Instead of just listening, which I now understand is what she really wanted and needed, I jumped in to remind her that she was a great Mom (which she is, exceptional actually). Not letting her get a word in (I do that sometimes), I rationalized that everyone yells sometimes and basically just tried to make it all okay, ultimately failing to acknowledge and honour what she was feeling.

After I was done my monologue on how great she was, she quietly responded:

“I appreciate that you are trying to make me feel better. I know it’s not helpful to beat myself up. But it’s also not helpful to let myself off the hook.”

All these years later, now a mother to my own four year old daughter, this remains one of the most valuable pieces of parenting advice I have ever received.

Gentleness and Precision

As parents and caregivers we likely have lofty ideals about the person we want to be for our children. This includes behaving in alignment with our values. And my core values include not yelling, especially not at people I love, especially not at my child.

The thing about being human is that we miss the mark sometimes.

When that happens, it doesn’t serve us to become defensive, make excuses or rationalize the behaviour. It doesn’t help to seek out people who will co-sign our actions. It also doesn’t help to dissolve into a shame spiral.

These reactive tendencies don’t help us grow, and don’t help us improve. They take us even further away from who we want to be.

Pema Chödrön, one of my favourite authors, writes about approaching each moment with “gentleness and precision.” She encourages us all to develop an unconditional friendship with ourselves, while at the same time cultivating precision as we strive to live according to our ideals. In The Wisdom of No Escape, she writes:

If we see our so-called limitations with clarity, precision, gentleness, goodheartedness, and kindness and, having seen them fully, then let go, open further, we begin to find that our world is more vast and more refreshing and fascinating than we had realized before. In other words, the key to feeling more whole and less shut off and shut down is to be able to see clearly who we are and what we’re doing.

In this transformative way of being, we are kind to ourselves, and also honest. We don’t let defensiveness, excuses, or shame cloud an opportunity to expand and evolve. We all make mistakes. What matters is what we do next.

If we are willing to look at our actions and acknowledge that they are out of alignment with our values, then we make room to do things differently next time.

Release Perfectionism

Nobody does it perfect all the time. Nobody.

If we can truly accept that, while having the aspiration and willingness to be the best version of ourselves moment to moment, we will be modeling something truly wonderful for our kids.

Because they won’t ever be perfect either. And they need to know that it’s okay to fall short. They also need to know that we don’t have to hide from our limitations. We can first acknowledge them, then leverage them for insight on how to be more loving, more present, more compassionate, and more aligned with our true selves.

When You Miss the Mark

Next time you fall short of your ideals, resist the impulse to either berate yourself or rationalize your actions. Occupy a mindset in between these two extremes.

Be as kind to yourself as you would a friend, and be willing to see yourself and your actions clearly.

Connect with who you really are, and who you want to be for your children, whatever is true for you. 

Then be willing to fumble imperfectly and sincerely towards that ideal.

For those brave enough, please share some of your imperfect moments in the comments below. How can you leverage these for insight and growth?