Mama Madison: When kids learn about death

How parents can help

I remember the first time as a child that I really thought about death. Weirdly enough, it was an episode of The Jeffersons that brought on my existential moment. I can't remember the exact plot details - I think George had to give the eulogy at a friend's funeral - but it made a significant impression. It was not the expected emotions of sadness, or even fear, that the storyline conjured up. No, all I could think about was the all-encompassing inevitably of dying.

I was the kind of kid who could always talk her way out of unpleasant predicaments. But that night, long after the TV turned to the test pattern, I lay awake pondering how I could possibly get out of "going gentle into that good night." Around 3 a.m., reality sunk in. Since I had been born, eventually I would die and there was nothing I could do about it.

But I was exceedingly fortunate as a child. I didn't really have to deal with the actual death of a loved one until my freshman year at college, when my grandfather died after an extended battle with kidney disease. Incredibly sad, absolutely, but I was prepared and able to accept it.

I wish could say the same for my own kids. They had come to terms with the unexpected death of their beloved Grandma Ruby about five years ago, following a brief illness. I was the parent at home who had to deliver the news to my oldest, nine at the time. It was August and a major swim meet was starting the next day. I will never forget his response upon hearing that we were leaving in the morning for Oklahoma City to say goodbye because Grandma wasn't expected to make it through the weekend.

First, there were the expected tears, and then poignant display of childhood sadness: "Mom, I am so mad I have to have to miss All-City, and for the saddest thing I can imagine." His ability to articulate both anger and grief in one truthful utterance will always stay with me. It was the first time he realized that life could really suck. Nine, seven and five just seemed way too young to have to deal with this heavy stuff.

Two all-too-short years later Granddad Billy, died--another major loss; a one-two punch. But he was significantly older than Grandma, so it made logical sense to them somehow. And the kids truly seemed to get the concept that one could die, albeit rather slowly, from a broken heart. But it was still hard, nonetheless, to know just what to say to the kids. As a parent, all you want to do is make it easier.

I have no idea how you soften this blow for children, especially if the person lost is a parent. Just this past summer, two dads in our elementary school community passed on. One died very suddenly, a few short months after what was, according to all accounts, a successful heart transplant. I did my best, in the immediate days after his death, to help with arrangements and offer support. But I was at loss for what to do in the longer term. This was unfamiliar territory -- not just grief, but trauma, the kind of death that has little forewarning?

The second dad passed on after many years of living life to the fullest with brain cancer. This story was so different. Time to prepare, perhaps, but also time to live with the overwhelming heaviness that must come from knowing that death is imminent.

And if the loss is a peer, as is the case for the third grade friends of Christina Taylor Green in Arizona, what do you say? How do you help them make any sense of the brutal, tragic death of someone whose death so upends the natural order of things? I wish I had a clue.

HospiceCare, Inc., I have heard from many, is an amazing support to those who have a loved one with a life-limiting condition. On January 20, 2011, HospiceCare starts a three-week group for kids who have a loved one whose death is anticipated.

Death. It isn't something you get over. My kids, especially the youngest, still experience waves of grief, often bought on by the weirdest triggers. But we also have our pictures, mementos and nightly discussions about Grandma Ruby's uncanny ability to make a recipe off the back of a Hershey's Cocoa can all her own.

Memories, they are our greatest, and perhaps only, defense.

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