The Unfixable Thing
November 21, 2021 11:00 AM   Subscribe

Talking to Your Kids About Grief Is Painful. And You Have to Do It. "It’s OK, as the adult, to shed tears through these conversations. It can help to spell out that sadness is universal and survivable: “It might seem scary or strange to see me cry. But everyone cries sometimes, and crying can even help us feel better. I promise I won’t cry all day. A cookie and a hug from Papa will help.”" (archive link)

"I see a dead blue jay on the sidewalk — pitiful and luminous — and my instinct is to avert my gaze and hurry my preschooler along. But really, the tiny corpse provides a relatively neutral opportunity to explain to him — gently, honestly — that all things die, that bodies can become so hurt or sick that they simply stop working and life ends. The psychologist J. William Worden, critical of the popular five stages of grief theory, gives the bereaved four tasks instead: The first three are to accept the reality of the loss, experience the pain of grief and adjust to an environment without the person. The last task is to find an “enduring connection” with the dead, perhaps by answering the question: What did the person give you?"
posted by storybored (33 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
 
Thanks for this. My father died suddenly when I was a young child and more than forty years later, I am only now coming to terms with the full impact of that loss. This material is very insightful, and I wish the adults around me had had access to it back then. Many things might have been different.

I recall that you recently lost your own mom, storybored, and I hope that these ideas are also bringing you some comfort. We're all still kids on some level when it comes to the loss of a parent.
posted by rpfields at 11:34 AM on November 21 [33 favorites]


My kiddo surprised me with her very perceptive and sensitive reaction to the loss of her great grandmother; she didn't want or ask for something easy even though she was only four. Like the writer, I couldn't revert to Heaven as a certainty.

So we were sad, we cried. We talked about how all people's bodies were recycled into trees and mountains. But how nobody really knows if there's more of you that goes on.

One thing she seemed to grab on to was the idea that if people didn't die, no new people could be born...there's be no room.

She still had fears and cried and was clingy for a while.
posted by emjaybee at 12:03 PM on November 21 [10 favorites]


Every season, and especially on her death-day, I take my surviving kids to their sister’s grave (they were both born after her.) I made that decision in part just for me, so I could bring their strollers and have them with me, but as a result they have abstractly mourned her loss too.* I’ve also brought them to some of the family and friend funerals. As a result, they seem to be pretty in tune with some of their own griefs - cats lost, pandemic losses. More so than I remember. This was a lovely piece, thank you.

* (They also have talks about how she would be driving them around wherever they want to go unlike mean old /me/ so I guess that’s the bed I made for myself.:))
posted by warriorqueen at 12:35 PM on November 21 [21 favorites]


I was reminded, by the article, of when I went with my cousin (and her tiny tot, age 3) to pick up elder tot from camp. I stayed with and amused tiny tot while elder tot's things were packed up and hauled to car. While talking to tiny tot, we encountered a ladybug. And we talked about the ladybug and the conversation went a ways and then...

Child: "Will it die?" (The ladybug, currently crawling across tot's hand after tot picked it up carefully)

Me: "Yes. All things that live must die someday."

Child: "That's sad."

Me: "Yes. Sad for ladybugs, sad for cats, sad for people. But, everything that lives will one day die. Even us."

Child: "Oh. Ok. Can we go climb that hill?"

Me: "Yep. Put the ladybug down safely first, though."

It was only as I took child's hand to go climb the hill that I noticed a handful of absolutely gobsmacked parent-types standing nearby with matching absolutely horrified looks on their faces. Like, what did they want me to do, lie to the tot? How's that helpful?

If you can't talk about the eventual death of a ladybug you just met, how are you going to talk about the imminent death of, for example, Muffin the cat or Granny or the classmate with leukemia? I don't understand people.
posted by which_chick at 12:43 PM on November 21 [44 favorites]


This is a really beautiful essay. Thank you.
posted by hydropsyche at 12:55 PM on November 21


Yes to all of this. I didn't begin to really heal from the loss of my parents until I accepted that some part of that grief would always be with me, like the background radiation of my life: I will always not have their real physical presence, but still have memories of them and the fact of their incarnation in my physical self.
posted by Halloween Jack at 1:04 PM on November 21 [7 favorites]


And, perhaps most important, “I miss her.”

Absolutely yes. Allowing your children to see you sad when a loved one passes - whether that be Nana or Theodore the magnificent kitty, gives them permission to be sad and express sadness as well.

On really hard days directly after my mother’s death, I would say “I really miss my mom” out loud. And it gave kiddo (and spouse) context and comfort that there was a reason for my unreasonableness. And kiddo would hug me and we would move on with our day.
posted by theBigRedKittyPurrs at 2:30 PM on November 21 [6 favorites]


Hard to address, but essential.

Article paywall, but my mum died when I was 11 (breast cancer), I knew nothing leading up to it, and no one tried to explain to me, made a mess of my life for a long time. It also marked a distinct break with the Romany side of my family.
posted by unearthed at 2:33 PM on November 21 [3 favorites]


Every season, and especially on her death-day, I take my surviving kids to their sister’s grave (they were both born after her.) I made that decision in part just for me, so I could bring their strollers and have them with me, but as a result they have abstractly mourned her loss too.* I’ve also brought them to some of the family and friend funerals. As a result, they seem to be pretty in tune with some of their own griefs - cats lost, pandemic losses. More so than I remember. This was a lovely piece, thank you.

* (They also have talks about how she would be driving them around wherever they want to go unlike mean old /me/ so I guess that’s the bed I made for myself.:))


My sister and I had a brother who died before we were born. We didn't go to his grave until we were older, but even in my earliest memory there isn't a time when we didn't know about Jimmy and what happened to him (SIDS). On his birthday, we'd always make note of how old he would have been. Knowing about him made it easier to understand why our mother tended to be a bit overprotective at times.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 3:00 PM on November 21 [8 favorites]


The wake of Big Grief is such a strange place to exist in. I hope you're hanging in there, storybored.
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:59 PM on November 21 [2 favorites]


Thanks for this. My father died suddenly when I was a young child and more than forty years later, I am only now coming to terms with the full impact of that loss. This material is very insightful, and I wish the adults around me had had access to it back then. Many things might have been different.

I had a few months to prepare myself....cancer....maybe that's a little better than a sudden death, but it probably does not make much difference. I entirely agree that it has taken me decades to understand the dimensions of harm that this trauma caused me. I hope you are doing well and I guess I just want to say, I understand you.

The insane thing was that people, including my peers, seemed to think that I'd just bounce back from it or something. I was seven years old! It's not like a gerbil dying. I mean: what is the worst fear of a child that age? Their parents will abandon them, or go away and not love them anymore. Now imagine that actually happening. The fact that they left because they died doesn't help too much.
posted by thelonius at 5:51 PM on November 21 [17 favorites]


What a powerful article and thread! For whatever reason death has always been real to me, even as a child. One of my earliest memories is going to the funeral of one of my father's aunts; it was an open casket consistent with Protestant practice in the southern USA. I don't know if I ever met her while she was alive, but the funeral is etched in my mind. After that I was old enough to remember my paternal grandfather's funeral; I have always felt bad that of the three siblings in our family I was the only one old enough to really know him. Since then there have been too many funerals to recollect in detail; a few years ago within the space of 3 weeks I went to 3 funerals encompassing 3 generations of people close to me. The first was the father of a family I have known most of my life. He died of a number of ailments related to his age; seemed too young to me, but in reality it was not at all out of the ordinary for someone in their 80s to die. The second funeral was a friend who had colon cancer; definitely too young, but unfortunately not unusual. The third funeral was the child of a friend; he was an early casualty of the opioid epidemic. That tragedy still reverberates through the family. The reason I bring all this up is that memorial events (whether they are religious or not) are really important for many people in dealing with their grief. Too many parents think they are doing their children a favor by not taking them to funerals, but they are not. This time of year is especially poignant for me, as we are approaching the 3rd anniversary of my mother's death. And the end of October is the anniversary of my father's death in 1998. The reason I bring that up is because my father wrote an essay 20 years before he died about how powerful an experience funerals were as part of his duties as a vestry member in the Episcopal church. I thought this would be a good place to share it:


The Privilege Of Serving—The Communion Of Saints
The typical parishioner views the Vestry as that elected group of people who ask for money, spend money, and “call” the clergy when the need arises. They certainly do all of these things and share in the joys and sorrows related to such activities. However, as a vestryman whose term expires next Easter, I feel compelled to share what has been the most meaningful aspect of my service as we approach All Saints’ Day 1978.
At the first vestry meeting I attended in 1975, we were instructed by our present rector concerning our duties to be present at all parish functions and special services, including funerals. At that time I had never attended an Episcopal funeral service!
Like most people approaching younger middle age, I had attended only a handful of funerals—a grandparent, an aunt, a schoolmate who had drowned in the fourth grade, and my mother when I was four. My recollections about the latter being the beautiful maroon velvet on the bier and the gray velvet on the casket. There were many friends and relatives—and I almost got my big toe cut off in the tricycle wheel while all the crowd was at the house.
My other main feeling about funerals at the time I became a vestryman was that Lyndon Johnson had a peculiar preoccupation with death. He seemed to attend the funeral of every rancher, politician, or bureaucrat who died while he was in office.
There have been 54 deaths at St. Paul’s during my term in office and I have attended approximately 40 funerals and burial services. Some of the departed I knew well, some not at all, but each time the service added meaning to my life and increased my understanding of the parish community. Each service was unique and special—a fitting testimony to each person’s place in the eyes of God. There was also the corporate experience of the service. Every time the cross and casket passed down the aisle the entire Creed ran through my mind and became alive—became real in a sense that seldom occurs at other services.
Unlike the usual Sunday service (and sermon) the impact was such that I could go down the list of names and write a commentary about each service—what it said about that person, our parish life, the Christian community, and our beliefs.
There was the memorial service for a fellow vestryman who, only a few days before, had looked me straight in the eye form his hospital bed and asked, “Jackie, how much does it take to sustain life?” He expected an answer—it only came during his service.
Another service was for an elder who had been a St. Paul’s Vestryman and representative to the Diocesan Convention for almost 20 years. He called a few weeks before his death, demanding an explanation of the “exorbitant budget” and casually inquiring as to the likelihood of the Rector’s accepting a call to go elsewhere so we could get the Parish back in order. At his service there were 4 loyal friends from the parish, 2 vestrymen, and a handful of neighbors from the retirement home. I was glad to be among them.
The service for the mother of a personal friend and former Senior Warden. I had never met her, but when the organ burst out with the Easter Hymn, “Hail Thee Festival Day!”, at the end of the service, the Resurrection became a reality that was overpowering
I attended two “State” funerals at St. Paul’s during these years in the sense that the larger community assembled en masse to pay tribute and share their sorrow. Each was quite different.
The first was for an adolescent who met an untimely and tragic death. The church was filled with classmates, their families, and friends. Few of them knew what the Prayer Book was for, yet I felt that the dignity of the service touched them with a new understanding of the Gospel and the meaning of Life and death as our community expresses it.
The other “State” occasion was more typical. An ecumenical service attended by local, state, and national officials and dignitaries whose life had been touched by the deceased. Much love, warmth, and tribute, but again the sense of ministering to the larger community in their time of loss in a way that is uniquely ours.
A service which will probably never be duplicated in my experience—the ordained son Celebrating the Requiem Mass for his father. The courage, the feeling—emotions so powerful the Eucharist will be changed forever in my mind. One of the three or four peak religious experiences in my ten years at St. Paul’s!
This could go on, but like my term in office it should end. I am truly thankful for the privilege of representing this Parish on all of these occasions and for being reminded of my obligation to do so. It will continue to be a part of my regular worship until I am there for real.
All Saints’ Day is truly a time for celebration!
Jackie Weatherred
posted by TedW at 6:11 PM on November 21 [14 favorites]


(mods, if my comment above is too chatfiltery feel free to delete it and this one too)
posted by TedW at 6:14 PM on November 21


How timely this post is; thank you for posting.
I'm reading Caitlin Doughty "From Here to Eternity: Traveling the world to find the good death" and it is helping me, a lot, to hear about other cultures death practices.
posted by winesong at 6:40 PM on November 21 [4 favorites]


I wish funeral traditions had more roles for children. At my church once a year we tie ribbons on a wreath for those we want to remember, and kids can do that too.
posted by emjaybee at 7:05 PM on November 21 [7 favorites]


Get your kids guinea pigs. I learned so much about death in those early years. And how transient life is. Heat, escaping, dog attacks, a falling brick... it was a bloodbath of sorrow.
posted by greenhornet at 7:26 PM on November 21 [4 favorites]


(mods, if my comment above is too chatfiltery feel free to delete it and this one too)

I flagged it as fantastic.


My dad is a vicar, and I used to work as a gravedigger/sexton, which involved attending and assisting with funerals. I'm also a trans woman. So I have attended a lot of funerals in both a professional, vicar's daughter*, and personal capacity.

I have talked with my dad about the burden of conducting funerals many times. It's not an easy thing to do, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually. If done well (and it doesn't have to be religious, though in my experience the rituals and liturgy of any religious ceremony provide a framework that makes it easier to do well, it harder to do badly) it can provide an incredible emotional relief for those surviving the deceased. Funerals are important. It's about the only paid work I've ever done that I can truly look back on with genuine pride. It is hard. But if you have the strength to do it, it is a gift you exercise gladly.


(*my dad being a vicar in rural Denmark for many years, it was not entirely uncommon to, when visiting my parents, be asked to throw on some formal black and hot step it across the garden to the church, as there weren't enough adults in attendance to put one on each corner of the coffin to carry out to the grave. It breaks my heart still to think back on these occasions, bearing witness to a memorial to someone's life, because there weren't enough people left in the world to care about them to even make four able-bodied adults, including the sexton. (It was never due to a strong representation of people who don't fall into that category - that wouldn't be sad at all.) I'm crying writing this, even. But if asked to, I would do it without hesitation again. Funerals are important.)
posted by Dysk at 10:50 PM on November 21 [18 favorites]


For a lot of deaths, there's often also a lot of loss of dignity from the progressive loss of body functions and, ultimately vitality.

A "quiet" death may not always be and there can be a lot of discomfort of doing the dying.

I think that the acts of dying being kept away from the majority of people is seriously hampering the political acceptance of assisted and dignified end of life services.
posted by porpoise at 11:08 PM on November 21 [3 favorites]


My dad and I always discuss the benefits in more... practical? pragmatic? ways than TedW's dad, though. For us, it's less about how it relates to faith, and more to do with how it helps contextualise the life and loss of the deceased, provides a space for grief, a space to remember through the pain, and to - in some ways - leave some of the immediacy of it behind through the catharsis of a space for the shared experience of confronting, sitting with, and acknowledging the grief, the pain, the loss, the person that no longer is, but now was. The transition to the often led intense and wrenching mood of a wake or other gathering following is almost as important a part of this. A space to decompress somehow, readjust from the emotional rawness of a final goodbye, and seek connections with others who also shared in that person's life in some way. To share fond memories, and to talk. Not that these are joyous occasions exactly, though in the ritual of a Danish church funeral, they are explicitly intended to be to some degree - the service ends with the coffin being lowered into the grace, and then the flag is pulled from the half mast of mourning to the full mast of celebration. The wake is intended to be a celebration of the person's life, where the service was about acknowledging the death and loss. My experience of funerals here in the UK, both religious and not, formal and informal, is that when they are done well, they take a similar structure, and provide a similar mood at gatherings afterwards.

In my own experience as a child, and as an adult with much younger siblings (I am old enough to be their mother), while kids don't often really understand the details or meanings of the rituals and the speeches of a funeral, they understand and tap into the moods of the various phases, and understand enough to benefit. A wake or other post-funeral gathering can also provide a space to feel able to ask questions about what it is for someone to die, what it all means, that they might struggle to be able to articulate or feel able to ask otherwise, and in a space where the adults being asked those questions have support from friends and family if they don't feel able to answer in the moment, or if it takes an emotional toll on them to explain in a kid friendly way. It isn't always how it works out, if course. But the whole process, the ritual, provokes kids to think about what it is that's happened, and to figure out how to understand it and relate to it. That can be tough as a process, but it is a healthy and necessary one.

Take your kids to funerals.


(Sorry for going on a bit, this is a topic that has occupied a lot of brainspace in my life, and I apparently have Thoughts and very rarely get an opportunity to talk about it at all. I've also just finished a 12 hour night shift. I'll be reading this thread, but will probably bow out in terms of comments. Thank you for your time.)
posted by Dysk at 11:12 PM on November 21 [12 favorites]


Dysk, sometimes 'going on a bit' allows room for thought, and you've laid out an amazing and touching thought-space above. Something (indefinable, but very real) clicked into place for me when I read.
posted by unearthed at 1:44 AM on November 22 [1 favorite]


Thanks Dysk, some really thoughtful insight.

I’ve always spoken of it in terms of the Wedding:Funeral Ratio, and genuinely worried for those whose numbers skewed to the former, especially when I was younger and many of my peers had zero funerals in their balance. For many years I was too heavy on the funeral side, easily 1:5 or higher, but in recent years it has swung the other way, to the point where I’d scramble for appropriate funeral attire. I know with certainty that the ratio will swing back again, permanently. So it goes.

My own son will know the grief in my family intimately, as we keep our ghosts close to us and share their memory freely. I hope that they’re not oppressive, but rather gentle companions that will help seep some of the fear out of topics like death, loss and grief. Accepting death as a stage of life instead of a cruel punishment is a gift I hope I can pass on.

Timor mortis conturbat me indeed.
posted by Ten Cold Hot Dogs at 4:11 AM on November 22 [1 favorite]


Dysk: ...it was not entirely uncommon to...hot step it across the garden to the church, as there weren't enough adults in attendance to put one on each corner of the coffin to carry out to the grave.

I went to a high school with a JROTC program, so we provided uniformed honor guards at the funerals of alumni who requested it.

My senior year we did this I think four times, and in fact we were the pall-bearers once. Three of the funerals were for "old guys we didn't know" but one was for a young man who'd overlapped at school with us. It was very sobering to step out of class, pile into a friend's car, check our uniforms in the parking lot behind the church, and suddenly be carrying the casket of a kid we knew. I've never forgotten what that felt like to a kid...but now I know what it meant for his family, and I am genuinely proud to have been able to do that for them.

My sons joined a Boy Scout troop, and a few weeks later there was a death in the family of one of the other kids. The Scoutmaster had every boy show up, in uniform, at the wake. My sons didn't understand why we were doing this as a group for a stranger, but the family was visibly affected.

Show up when it matters, kids, and be there for people. We're all we've got.
posted by wenestvedt at 5:40 AM on November 22 [19 favorites]


I realize it's gauche to quote Marvel, but there was a line in Wandavision that really stuck with me - what is grief, but love persevering - and I paraphrased it in a conversation with my granddaughter a few weeks ago when we were talking about my father's passing.

If people love us beyond our time alive, if we are remembered, some part of us lives on. The loss we feel with others means they're still alive in our hearts. Death always wins, but we can keep our names on the scoreboard if we try.
posted by davelog at 6:18 AM on November 22 [4 favorites]


(Forgive me if this strikes you as somehow wrong, but:) I feel like many people grieve about lost pets far better than they do about lost people.

Reddit is largely a trash fire, but the threads about people losing their beloved friend in r/dogs are almost always very open and supportive and healthy. It's guaranteed there will be reminders that we only feel pain at the loss of things that are important and valuable -- things we love -- and also that loving something is a calculated risk that brings you joy until it doesn't.

I read these threads every so often to learn from people dealing with loss in a good way; I hope I remember to do the same the next time I lose a person or a dog who is dear to me.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:35 AM on November 22 [2 favorites]


I was told when I wasn't quite 5 that my godparents had died ( he after complications from surgery, she couldn't handle it and killed herself 6 weeks later) but I wasn't taken to their funerals...only later to the mausoleum.
posted by brujita at 12:04 PM on November 22


Funeral rituals are one of the few things I miss about organized religion. I had two friends die unexpectedly in the last month and I missed the funerals because people post it on facebook and assume that means everyone knows when the funeral is. One friend offered to create a ceremony for me to say goodbye. I haven't taken her up on it yet due to timing but it was an incredibly thoughtful offer I will not forget.
posted by Emmy Rae at 2:09 PM on November 22 [2 favorites]


My sister had to put her cat to sleep (a barn cat who came with the house, so not the world's most beloved pet or anything, but still loved and missed) and I tried to talk with her 4 year old about it. It was hard to know if he understood anything or not. He asked when she was coming back from the vet, and I said she's not. He asked again, but how will we get her back? Later he showed me where she was buried. Trying to do what the author said, I told him I missed petting her. He suggested we dig her up. This isn't the first pet death he has experienced but I found it hard to manage his confusion. I couldn't really even tell when he was sad versus not understanding what happened.
posted by Emmy Rae at 2:13 PM on November 22 [2 favorites]


She comes to me in the garden, my tiny, precious, barely 4 year old. "Papa, what's alive?" and the rest of the afternoon she picks up things. "Is this rock alive?" Not anymore. "Is this rhubarb plant alive?" "Is this fence alive?" "Is Buttercup the rabbit alive?" Yes, no, certainly. "Am I alive?" Yes, all the way. "Why?" Because you're growing, little one. Everything that is alive is growing, and everything that is growing is alive. She tilts her head slightly, thinking, nods her head, then says "oh," and scampers off.
posted by dubwisened at 2:31 PM on November 22 [5 favorites]


The best funeral I ever attended was for a dear friend who was dying from cancer. He was a singer/songwriter/businessman with a huge group of friends and a large extended family. His sister arranged for a VFW hall, and a hundred or so of his friends had a potluck and an open mic. People, including me, sang his songs for him, and other songs too, and he sat in a recliner in front of the stage grinning all day soaking it all in. People spoke and he got to hear how much people loved him. He called it his 'wake while I'm awake.' He died a couple weeks later. Happy, I think, or at least at peace. He seemed that way. They say funerals are for the living. I think Americans' death customs finally seem to be changing.
posted by dubwisened at 2:39 PM on November 22 [6 favorites]


The insane thing was that people, including my peers, seemed to think that I'd just bounce back from it or something. I was seven years old! It's not like a gerbil dying. I mean: what is the worst fear of a child that age? Their parents will abandon them, or go away and not love them anymore. Now imagine that actually happening. The fact that they left because they died doesn't help too much.

Wow, I hear you. I was a little bit older but still, when I remember how proud I was afterwards of how "well" I handled things, I'm struck by how eager the adults around me were to accept the idea that "oh well, she's fine, look at her." Now I know there is absolutely no way a child in that situation is ever going to be "fine" and I have vowed never to abdicate adult responsibility like that.
posted by rpfields at 3:01 PM on November 22 [7 favorites]


One of things in my dad's family is showing up at funerals. It's cultural, rather than an expression of grief as such. I found that when my dad died it did actually help to have extended family who were there to pay their respects as well as those of use who were more explicitly grieving.
posted by plonkee at 3:22 PM on November 22 [3 favorites]


At the age of five I developed my patented delayed-reaction grief. The passing of our elderly neighbor, who was like a third grandmother to us, was the first human I knew to die. I was so calm and matter-of-fact about it that my mother started to think there was something wrong with me. Weeks later I started crying and couldn't stop. It's been the pattern of my grief process ever since.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:25 PM on November 23 [3 favorites]


When I was seven, we had a 'project table' in my class with three sections on it - Dead, Alive, and Never Alive. And we could bring stuff in to put on each section of the table. I don't remember any discussion of the implications of those categories for us or our loved ones, but now I look back, what seemed at the time like a fairly unremarkable school project now seems like a well thought-out way of introducing kids to some fundamental information about the world.

In case you're wondering, the Alive table had a tank of stick insects and some broad bean plants that we grew from seed :)
posted by penguin pie at 4:48 AM on November 26 [4 favorites]


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