Surviving the Death Talk With My Kid

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

Swellness is a monthlong series exploring the health-and-wellness stuff no one talks about.

The first time death came up, my son was asking about an old photo of my dog Jupiter. Jupiter, an American bulldog I rescued from L.A. just before my now-husband and I moved in together, died just a couple of months before my son was born. For several weeks I cried, unmoving, on the sofa. Agonizing over my loss and worried that my joy about giving birth was being overshadowed by my sorrow, I was nervous that heartbreak was seeping deep into my bones.

When he asked, I was so excited to tell my son, who was 4 at the time, all about this amazing dog’s life. It turned out he was far more interested in his death.

Like so many other hard conversations we’d had before, I initially tried to be as matter-of-fact about dying as I could be. I described how Jupe had been in a lot of pain, that the doctor said he was likely very ill, and that the kindest thing we could do for him would be to relieve him of that pain as peacefully and quickly as possible. “What was he feeling when he died?” my son asked. I wasn’t sure how to answer. In that awful, quiet moment, I only knew how I felt, and I was shattered. So I told him truthfully that I didn’t know what it feels like to die, but as I’ve done a million times before with things I’m not sure of, I promised we could get some books from the library and try to find out. But I knew deep down he wasn’t interested in hypotheticals and esoteric explanations about death. He wanted to know it, to see it up close and poke at it in the same way he investigated the bugs in our backyard.

The books at the library were unsatisfying, but he didn’t have to wait long to find out what the real thing felt like. The next year for our family was anchored by death, and the “what ifs” were left far behind.

Just a few months after our conversation about Jupiter, my husband’s father died. He flew home to be with his family in the very darkest part of the morning, and I sat up waiting for the sun to rise, hoping the light would help me make sense of what was happening, both for me and for the kids. My daughter was just a toddler, but my son — he was that very curious, very aware 4-year-old who would wonder where Daddy had gone and why.

This time I didn’t feel the need to explain as much; I just let him see for himself how death reshapes the room as my grief filled our tiny home like my tears were a million heavy glass balls. Loss was no longer something atmospheric, it was grounded by this now-empty hole in my husband; it became a window through his heart that he tried to hide but couldn’t.

Now that death was suddenly tangible, we started talking about it a lot more, but it wasn’t until my mother-in-law died eight months later that the real, unraveling questions about it came.

“Does everybody die?” Yes. “Will you and Daddy die?” Someday, yes. “Will I die?!” Yes, but … “When?” Not for a long time. “Is there anything after we die?” I don’t know.

Those were hard. I wanted to tell him the truth — I think kids are owed at least that much. My husband actually had to stop me from answering “When will I die” with something a little too honest. I just felt he deserved at least my attempt at the full picture of what it means to be alive, of the true price of this incredible experience. That a long life is not promised, it’s only what we hope for, and when and how we die is something no one knows. That death is arbitrary and often meaningless, and how finite our lives really are. Would I be denying him something fundamental by not making all of those things clear? Or was it actually cruel to burst that bubble of innocence for a kid who adamantly believes in Santa and the Easter Bunny? So instead I told him how lucky we are that before we die we get to taste mangos and read our favorite books. That we get to swim in the salty ocean and collect smooth, green glass on the beach.

I worried a lot that first year if I’d been too forthcoming. I didn’t want him to feel burdened by this idea of loss, and I didn’t want him to be afraid. But I also wanted to offer an explanation for why it sometimes felt like the roof of our house was sagging under with grief. I remember when my own dad’s dad died, I was quite a few years older than my son, but my parents shielded my sisters and I from what was happening. All we knew was that suddenly everything felt different around the house and our once stoic dad was felled by a pain we couldn’t understand. I thought and still do think when the emotional tenor of the household changes so dramatically and instantly, it’s important to let everyone know why. Especially since the aftermath of death can feel like a punctuated silence. You’re not sure what to say or how to say it; grief can feel invisible, so naming it, talking about it is a necessary flare to send up, to be clear that this house is in mourning.

I reminded myself of what a privilege it is to watch each other grow and that in the inevitability of death is also a promise to relish life.

Sometimes it felt like he was prodding at us like a couple of worms he’d dug up, seeing which questions would make us recoil or squirm. He often recited that his grandparents had died like it was an animal fact or something he’d learned at school, as a reminder to himself that yes, something had changed this year, we really were different.

The next summer, my son got really into space. We started talking about all the different galaxies and planets and stars, the bigness of everything around us and the smallness of us. And I told him, a few weeks after the memorial for his grandparents, that he, too, is made of stardust, that part of what’s out there is also in both of us. He loved the idea of being a part of something so huge and the thought that when you died, you might still leave something behind. I knew he’d been seeking that kind of comfort since our very first conversation about it, but I couldn’t promise him something I didn’t know to be true. In stardust though, I was finally able to say with confidence that after we die, we don’t just disappear.

It’s been a couple of years now, and we don’t talk about death as frequently. Some light has come back into our house, and I’ve noticed that my son isn’t as scared of the idea anymore. He understands how momentous death can be, but along the way, because we always answered his questions openly, honestly, and with care, it has become something normal. It’s as much a part of life as anything else, and he’s seen that firsthand now. The only thing that has really changed is that he won’t let me kill bugs in the house anymore because he says they deserve a long life too.

More From This Series

See All
Surviving the Death Talk With My Kid