Explaining Death To Children

A Child's Perspective On The Seriously Ill

Today, Momma's setting down her beer for a more serious discussion.

How do you talk to your children about seriously ill family and friends? Death and dying? There's a thin line between informing and scaring your kids, so talking to your kids about serious illness and death can be challenging topics to bring up. Sometimes, you need to just go with the flow and give children serious information on a need-to-know basis. Other times... well, life and death present more opportunities than you can wrap your brain around.

My six year old is no stranger to funerals. Her first experience with death was at eight months old, when my father-in-law passed away due to weakened heart and lungs stemming from diabetes complications.

My father, Jim was in the first years of a ten year health decline when my husband and I started dating; Jim was bitter and moderately intimidating.

I never truly knew him as a healthy man, and I never felt like I could live up to his high expectationsBack then, my voice wasn't as loud and proud as it is today. All of that changed when I gave birth to his granddaughter, Natalie. The morning after she was born, he phoned us to ask in his brash voice, "How are my girls?" on their way in to the hospital. I'll never, ever forget that. I don't think my husband will, either.

In the short eight months Natalie had with her Papa, they bonded. We never used a baby-voice when we talked to Natalie, but her Nana did, and every time Nana saw Natalie she would squeal and want to hold her - talking in her baby-voice, and Natalie would start screaming bloody murder.

But Papa? His weathered body was usually covered in oxygen tubes and IVs, and his rusty voice would simply yell, "Hey Natalie, come give your Papa a big kiss!" And my first-born would go right to him, no fear and no tears!

You're probably not aware of what my family is going through with my seven week old niece. It's interesting to talk to my seven year old about her seriously ill baby cousin. But I believe some of her very early experiences have taught her more than we imagined. Natalie has always been a very smart girl, but she does have moments of sensitivity that don't always reveal her best side. When it comes to the topic of the seriously ill, Natalie practically matures right before our eyes.

She wanted to see her cousin Delaney when she was in the NICU even though we told her she was being supported by machines, IVs and such. We brought Natalie right outside the room and she was ready, but they wouldn't allow anyone under eighteen inside.

My sister and brother-in-law thought it was for the best, as they believed it could have traumatized her. But I knew my tough little cookie just wanted to see her cousin and touch her just to give her a little of that amazing, tenacious spirit they both seem to have. I don't believe Natalie's focus would've been the machines, it would've been her cousin,

(and seeing the picture she made for her on Delaney's bed, of course). 

When we visited Delaney at home two weeks later, Natalie was a little distracted, but about an hour or so before we left, I asked her if she wanted to hold her baby cousin and she practically jumped at the chance.

When Natalie holds babies, there's just something in her eyes... it's a very pure love. Hard to look away because it feels like something special, almost spiritual or magical is happening. Yes, I realize I'm so beyond biased it's not even funny, but cut me some slack!

Last week, Natalie randomly said, "Momma, I wish it were my birthday so I could blow out all of my candles and wish for Delaney to be all better. I really do, Momma."

That still makes my eyes water.

 Natalie prays for her ill cousin Delaney every night. It's very sweet, and unlike many prayers Natalie has recited in the past, she changes her prayer about Delaney every night and asks me to pray for Delaney too, "and not in your head, Momma." She obviously knows that I think about my niece constantly.

My husband and I have open, honest conversations with our kids regarding their seriously ill cousin, as well as friends and family who have died. They have seen us cry about Delaney and understand that crying is okay. We've had a tough couple of years here trying to talk to my children about my folks' split, Natty's best friend's folks' divorce, random deaths, and now this - on their level.

As difficult as these topics are to kick off, once the conversation is out there we're always open to answering questions, no matter how deep or difficult they may be to address. Sedona's not quite asking questions yet, but if and when she has questions, we'll answer them. Talking to your children honestly about difficult topics like the seriously ill and dying is key.

One of the many irks I had with my upbringing was how little I knew about life/sex/death because I was so sheltered. Questions I'd ask weren't answered by my mother without me feeling like I should be ashamed of the question. I felt very naive well into my twenties. I don't know how different I would be today if I did have some of those questions answered, or was simply treated better when I asked them.

Maybe I would have spent less time worrying about what people think, maybe I would've been able to have a conversation with my father-in-law before he died where I didn't feel like a failure, or maybe I simply wouldn't feel so dumb when I do ask questions of people I feel are smarter than I am.

I eventually learned that if I was going to get an answer, I either had to figure it out on my own or ask someone who actually gave a shit about me or the topic. I don't want my own kids to feel that way. I realize this is a tall order, but I'm doing my best to give them what I never had: support and honesty.

I feel sorry for anyone who feels this overwhelming need to shelter their kids from life's challenging moments, especially if someone close to you becomes ill or dies.

Of course I'd love it if we could dance like princesses and swim with dolphins every day, but that's not reality. Yes, they are still kids and we need to make sure we're not frightening them with too much information, but kids are more resilient than we think.

We need to trust in them just as much as they trust in us.

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The Day I Got Busted Saying "One"

I've talked about the dilemma many times. The dreaded question when you've had a child die.

"How many children do you have?"

"Is he your only child?"

There are two different answers.

One is the answer I give in passing to people who don't really need to know. You know, the grocery bagger, the waitress, the lady sitting by you in the airport. They are people you'll never see again so you don't want to bring down the room by being all Debbie-Downer on them.

But then there is the other answer. This is the one reserved for people you will see again, possibly socialize with and who will get to know you better. (Or the ones who might stumble across your blog or Twitter and go OMG YOU DIDN'T TELL ME THAT.)

Those people get the answer that goes like this: "No. Henry's our second child. Our first son died when he was 24 days old from Late Onset Group Beta Strep. So I have two children, but only one I have to run after."

That's my stock answer. And yes, they usually get flustered and I have to calm them down by saying, "It's okay. We're okay. It was a very rare thing and even though it sucks, it's made us who we are today."

I took Henry for a haircut on his birthday because he was starting to look like Shaggy on Scooby Doo. 

Anyway, he was getting his hair washed and the girl was talking to him.

Girl: So how old are you?

HL: I'm 7. Today's my birthday.

Girl: {getting all excited} Really? That's so cool! Happy birthday! What are you going to do tonight?

HL: We're going to go have a birthday dinner at Cheeseburger in Paradise.

Girl: Oh, what are you going to get?

HL: A cheeseburger. But without cheese. Just meat.

Girl: {giggling} That sounds delicious.

HL: I love it. Have you been?

Girl: No. {looks at me} He's so cute. Is he your only child?

Me: He is.

HL: {gives me the crooked-head whatchu talkin' bout Willis look} MoooOOOom

HL: {tells the girl} No. I have a brother. Mom, teeeeeell her.

Me: {feeling myself blush and my heart start to race} He's right. He does have a brother. Our first son died when he was only a few weeks old.  {to Henry because he got the hurt feelings look on his face} Sorry, Buddy, I should have said you do have a brother.

HL: {adamantly} Yeah, you should have. Charlie is my brother.

Girl: {looking stunned} I'm so sorry. I don't know what to say. I had a miscarriage last week.

Me: {equally as stunned and flustered} I'm so sorry. That's just terrible.

HL: I think I'll get fries and ice cream with my cheeseburger without cheese tonight. Is that okay, Mom?

So there you have it.

It was interesting to see his facial expression when he looked at me that way. It was as if he was trying to telepathically send me a message saying "Why didn't you tell her?"

I think it hurt his feelings which makes me smile a little inside. Strange, huh?

Let me explain.

We talk about Charlie a good bit. Not a lot. Not every day. But we make a point to talk about him often. Henry knows he would be his friend Meg's age, older than him. He knows he got very sick and died. He KNOWS he has a brother. He's known that for a long time.

But now I think, in his heart, he understands what that means. He gets it now. He HAS a brother. He will never know him, but I know that he will always feel that a piece of his heart belongs to his brother.

I just hope he never has to know what it feels like to have a piece of your heart missing like his Daddy and I do.

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Spotlight On: Hearts - Her Little Heart Shaped My Life

Each month, The Band is choosing to focus our spotlight on a particular subject.

This February, we're focusing upon "hearts." Do you have a heart defect? Has a heart problem affected you? We want to hear more about your hearts and the hearts you love, The Band. Please send us any and all stories you have about hearts, heart defects, heart problems, heart disease, well, anything!

This month, we're throwing the spotlight squarely upon hearts, one of the most important parts of our bodies.

What's your story?

My baby sister was born with Transposition of the Great Vessels.

She lived 7 days

I was 4 years old; I would turn 5 years old a month later. 

My first memory: 

I was walking around the back of our house to our cement patio with my grandmother. I was a kindergartener. But my mom missed it. She had missed my first day of school. She missed my blue dress, my messenger bag, and my blue Mary Janes.

My dad missed it too, but I wasn’t so concerned about that. They were there, my mom, dad, and grandpa. They were sitting in metal green patio chairs.

My mom was in the glider rocker, from the same green metal patio set, rocking, her glazed eyes staring forward. Where Amy, my 3-year old sister, was I don’t remember; probably trailing behind me, as she had a habit of doing. 

And there she was - my mom. Suddenly in front of me, her eyes locked with mine. She was kneeling, her permed brown hair framing her face. Her over-sized, early 1980’s glasses making her blue eyes - were full of tears - appear even larger than they were. 

And in the next moment, we were in the bathroom, my mom and I. She was sitting on the toilet, with the seat down, using it as a seat to talk to me. She was telling me something important. “Your sister isn’t coming home.” “Bridget died.” 

Who is Bridget? I guessed that was the name of the child that was in my mom’s tummy. Only there wasn’t a child in her tummy anymore. The baby.

The baby that I was so excited about.

I helped wallpaper her bedroom, was it a Muppet Babies wall-paper? I remember the ladder, I remember playing in wallpaper goo, I remember hearing, “Stop that, this is for your brother or sister, don’t mess with it, Rebecca.” And now the “brother or sister” wasn’t coming home. Bridget was in heaven.

She was my guardian angel now, Mom said. 

And there were presents. The living room was full of presents. Beautiful baby blankets. There was a yellow one. We could not keep that. We needed to give the presents back, I remember hearing. 

I learned that my sister was born on my first day of school. She was in the hospital for seven days. Her surgeon was the same surgeon that would later operate on my own daughter, twenty-one years later. The day that my grandmother brought me home was the day of the funeral. I was sheltered. I was protected. I went on being my oblivious, carefree self, because the adults in my life wanted it so. 

I want to do the same for my child, my daughter. But how do I protect her; keep her from the harsh realities of life when it is her life that has been oh-so-harsh? When she's the one that had the liver transplant at seventeen months old?

How do I protect her from that?

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The Choice

I was in kindergarten and kissed a pudgy little boy beside me on the playground. My little friends pointed and laughed. I wanted to die. I did not, because I made a choice.

I was in the fifth grade and my classmates noticed I had boobs. My friends pointed and laughed. I wanted to die. I did not, because I made a choice.

I was in high school and suffered through the angst of a breakup. His friends pointed and laughed. I wanted to die. I did not, because I made a choice.

I had a huge fight with my parents and disappointed them. I wanted to die. I did not, because I made a choice.

The choice? Tomorrow would be a better day if I lived.

My husband of twelve years stuck a gun in his mouth and made a different choice. He left behind three daughters who under five years of age. He died because, to him, there was no other choice.

We were finally ending a long divorce - a divorce spawned from years of domestic abuse due to his mental illness. For almost 12 years - 365 days and nights of tears, I woke up and thought tomorrow would be a better day if I lived.

Often times, I felt it was his "grace" that allowed me to live. Every now and then, in the grips of pain from a fist or a kick, I wanted to die. Still, I always made a choice to live.

For weeks after he left this earth, I asked, "Why?"

I needed an explanation - a resolution - for his choice.

Most of us have had those moments in which we think we don't want to live through the day. We think for a split-second, "What would it matter if I was gone?"

We think we don't matter. We wonder if we'd be missed. I wish that, before he ended his life, I could've answered these questions for him.

Since I cannot, I will do it here:

"What would it matter if I was gone?"

Regardless of our marital state, you helped me create three daughters.

Before the first one goes to school, I will have to explain that her father is dead. Before she learns to write her name, she will understand what a grave is.

The two youngest daughters will not have a decent memory of their father to carry through their adult lives. They will look back and only know your face because there is a picture. They will only know stories - not through their own recollection - but because I will fill in the blanks.

They will never be able to take their father to a "Daddy/Daughter" dance. They will not have the man who helped give them life, give them away on their wedding day. Father's Day will always leave their hearts heavy. They will, one day, know that you didn't consider living for them, loving them, that they were not enough for you.

"Would I be missed?"

A few days after your death, I had to sit down on the bed and explain to the children that their father would never come back. Ever. The day has not come yet that they haven't cried for you in some fashion. The oldest has a picture of you in her room on her nightstand. She talks to you when she has something important to say. She tells you about her birthday, her missing tooth, her new puppy, and when Mommy has made her mad. When she is frightened, she screams for you to help her, because Daddies are big and strong.

The man who didn't feel like he had a choice went into a rage that day. He broke things, he screamed, and he broke down. He walked into the room filled with all the children's things and did not see any of them. All he saw was that he didn't have another choice, that he didn't matter, that he wouldn't be missed.

In front of a rack of his children's clothes, ranging from size 18 months to 5T, standing before a toddler bed and dozens of smiling stuffed animals on the floor, he thought that the only thing that mattered was taking himself out of everyone's life.

Ceasing to exist.

Becoming a memory and nothing more.

Later, I stood in a funeral home to pick out a casket for my husband. I wanted to die. I did not.

I made a choice to live. Sitting in the living room looking at the Christmas tree, stockings lined up bearing the children's names and a dozen smiling stuffed animals on the floor, I see the only thing that matters: making memories and so much more.

Tomorrow will be a better day because I live.

I make that choice.

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Pissy Pants

Bullying is a pervasive problem that knows no social, racial, or economic boundaries and takes many forms.

It is just as likely to occur on the job as on the playground.

Today, we invite you to share your story: let's kick bullying to the curb.

Once upon a time...


That's the start of a fairy tale and this, this is not a fairy tale. This is a tale about a girl and a school and another girl. It's a tale about a girl who had horrible secrets and who simply had to deal with them the best she could.  It's a tale about the bullying that made all of it so much worse.

I started school just like any other little girl, but I wasn't just any other little girl. By kindergarten I'd already been abused both physically and sexually. I'd been put into the foster care system, and I'd been adopted. I'd been expelled from preschool for fighting. My socialization did not include other children since my adopted parents were so much older than I was.

I don't remember anything really bad until after my mother died when I was 8.

I had normalish problems for a child, with the exception of nighttime enuresis (bed wetting) and some rage issues (but those were mostly at home). That was a really embarrassing problem to have when sleepovers are such big things, but I tried really hard to deal with it and keep it a secret. When my mother died, my father went from a man who enjoyed a few beers to someone who needed to get lost in them. I went from a little girl who had problems to a little girl with big problems.

When you don't have a choice to do anything but survive, you find a way.

For me it became hiding from the world. By 4th grade, I was starting to skip school and my nighttime enuresis problem was becoming more of an issue during the day. I'd get so nervous about calling attention to myself that I literally could not get up during class and ask to be excused. Of course, inevitably, I started wetting my pants during the day.

In fourth and fifth grade, the teasing got really bad. Teasing is actually such a kind word for what it really was. I was tagged with multiple nicknames all involving pee. Pissy Pants followed me until I graduated high school. It was so humiliating, and there wasn't a damn thing I could do about it.

In fifth grade I attempted suicide and put myself into a coma for 3 days. I simply couldn't take it all anymore. Now I look back and wonder why no one did anything. My father's family knew what was going on at home, or at least the broad strokes of it. My birth grandparents knew (it was an open adoption except for contact by my birth parents).

I was dirty most of the time, our house smelled horrible since it was never clean, and the bar owners near our home knew what my voice sounded like on the phone when I called to get Daddy to come home. I watched him get arrested for a DUI in front of our house. My teachers had to have seen how I was treated and how I kept retreating. I know they had to know I wet my pants; it wasn't like I was keeping it a secret very well. The school certainly knew I wasn't in class more than was normal for a child.

Middle school is usually the worst time for bullying, but oddly enough it contained my best consecutive years at school. I don't know if my suicide attempt gave me some kind of "hands off" status, or if I was simply able to deal with it better. By then my father had stopped drinking, and I had good friends who supported me. It was a good time, until the rape.

Then I self-destructed and it all went south.

In high school, it got worse - again. My arch nemesis had been in my class for most of my school years (our town had 2 elementary schools, 1 middle school and 1 high school - there was no escape). If someone was making fun of me, she was right there making it worse (or starting it). By high school she had honed her keen edge on me for so long that I would spend massive amounts of energy to avoid her. A teenager trying to fit in does not want to hear those grade school nicknames - especially said out loud during a break between classes while the entire school streams by heading to their lockers.

I went back to missing school, this time not to escape my home life, but to escape how school made me feel. She made fun of my old problem (which was rapidly starting to come back from nerves), how much school I missed, my weight, my hair... basically anything she felt could make me deficient in the eyes of others.

I was a smart kid - I had been in our school's advanced placement program since I was in 4th grade (the year it started for us). I should have had great grades and been one of our top graduates. By 10th grade I was missing so much school that I had two different teachers start making comments IN CLASS like, "it's so nice of you to join us today, I suppose we won't see you again until next week."  Yea, that was helpful. *eyeroll*

By my senior year it had gotten so bad that the school wouldn't allow me to go to the regular high school. I either went to alternative school (where I was the only non-pregnant girl), or I quit school. I went to alternative school, and I made it through, although it was close.

When I see a school shooting on the news, I'm sad.

Of course I'm sad because of what happened, but also because I know the rage that often plays such a big role in that kind of thing. I never really fantasized about killing everyone, because even in my own sad, little way back then, I liked most of the people, and I REALLY wanted them to like me. I did fantasize, so often that I can literally see the exact sequence of things I would do to her even now, of hurting my arch nemesis who seemed to thrive on my pain.  I fantasized about standing up to those teachers who made fun of me in front of the class. I fantasized about saying all the things I couldn't say to all the people who shut me out and made me pay for being different. Different in ways that I had absolutely no control over.

No child should ever have to feel the way I felt during school. I was shamed on a daily basis. I dreaded school so much that I would rather have been at home in my room hanging out by myself than go to school and be around my friends (and I had some excellent friends). I became pathologically afraid of one of the most popular girls in our school, one who led the pack that feasted on my pain. I was convinced that I was inferior to everyone.

With the advent of Facebook, I've gotten into contact with so many of the people that I went to school with. Some friends, some people that I didn't know very well, and some that even made fun of me. No one seems to remember what happened back then, and I suppose for someone who wasn't traumatized, they probably wouldn't. When I see them make posts about how bullying is bad, I remember how they stood by and watched or participated in my torment.

I should feel happy that they've changed, that they want to teach their children to be better, but a small part of me still wants to cry and ask "why me?"

A note about commenting: It only takes moments to comment but makes a world of difference to an author to know they are not alone: They're with the Band! Please share your support here!

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