How (Not) To Talk To Kids About Death

After 40 years of looking back at the seminal event in my life, the death of my father, I’ve had ample opportunity to deconstruct it from every conceivable angle. Here are some of the things I’ve learned about dealing with death as a kid, and about how adults can help or hurt.

First of all, nothing at all will every prepare anybody for the sudden death of a parent, a spouse, a child or an animal family member. Second, the sudden death of a loved one is different from the expected death of a loved one. (A violent death is different from everything else, and about that I know almost nothing, except as it relates to suddenness.)

The sudden death of my father felt violent to me. While my Mom seemed to be at least 80% focused on the tragedy of his un-lived life for him, I was 100% focused on the tragedy for me. For an 11½ year old, this is normal.

I was also focused on the shock of his death, the betrayal of it. Again, nothing can prepare someone for this. And I don’t think it’s a good idea to tell kids their parents could keel over at any time. (Not to worry, after an experience like this, your kids will decide that for themselves. Just ask my partner.)

But it is a good idea to talk to your kids about death. People shy away from this. Mostly because most people haven’t come to a good understanding of it for themselves. I’m going to tell you something. Physical death is super simple. The heart stops beating, and the body dies. Start with that.

What about spirit or essence? What happens to the person? That depends on what you believe is the essence of who we are as a person aside from our bodies. If you have kids, now would be a good time to decide that and take a stab at putting it into words. My super simple explanation of spirit is it’s everything about the person that isn’t their body.

Here are some things not to say:

  • Death is like sleeping, except the person never wakes up. This is terrify and untrue. Death is nothing like sleeping. Your kid is going to have to go to sleep, like, at the end of the day you tell them this. Think about it.
  • God needed your father more than you do. This is the one the priest told me. Do I think all priests are this stupid? No, after reaching adulthood and considering it for 40 years, I realize it was just this one mortal, who, despite the fact that he had a clerical collar, knew no more about death than I. Also, he knew nothing about God.
  • Your father’s time was up. See the way we get creative, just to avoid the fact that we have no idea why this happened, except that their heart stopped beating and their body died?
  • If your father were here, he’d… Yeah, after you’re elected God you can say this, but not before.
  • Your father’s watching over you. That’s creepy. Does that mean he’s watching when I’m peeing, getting dressed, picking my nose? Is my father now one with Santa Claus? If you don’t know for sure, don’t say it. Kids take things literally.
  • Your father’s an angel now.  I’m still reeling from the fact that I no longer have my father’s body to snuggle against and to teach me to drive, and you’re messing with it more by telling me he now has wings. Stop making stuff up.

Some things to say (and do):

  • Love never dies. Your mother/father/aunt/sister loved you, was proud of you, and thought you were the best thing ever. That never goes away. That’s inside your heart. You get to keep that forever.
  • You are not the only person in the world whose parent has died. Here, let me help you meet some other kids like you.
  • Let’s make a special place just for you to go and be with your loved one’s spirit and talk to them whenever you want to.
  • Give your kid something that belonged to the dead person, something special and meaningful, to keep.
  • Tell them what’s going to happen if there’s going to be a funeral, a memorial, a burial, a service, people over. Talk, talk, talk about what’s going to happen.
  • If they’re indescribably sad, hold them, or hold their hand. Forever, if you have to. It’ll pass, in about…never, but don’t tell them that.
  • If they’re beside-themselves-mad, hold them while they scream and kick and rail against their powerlessness. Then, give them hot chocolate or iced tea. Later you can let them smoke in the house. 🙂

If you  lost a parent early and still feel the loss and realize there was something essential missing in your early understanding and conversations about death and dying, let yourself feel it. Really, what choice do you have? Set a time limit on grief? Decide it’s time you’re over it?

Am I saying be consumed with the victimhood of it all? I’m not even saying continue justifying smoking in the house. I’m saying, feel it. Acknowledge the wound, so you don’t have to keep doing things to tamp it down. So you can face death with clear eyes and steady heart. So you can be one of the few who can look a kid in the face and say, everybody dies, kid. And still we love. In fact, we love even more. That’s how perverse and contrary we are. Love is. Feel it, so you can embrace your humanity ever more deeply and honestly.

Growing up without a parent leaves a gaping hole. Do your best to make that sore spot a living green space dedicated to bringing more love and more light and more aliveness into your life, more than you think you can hold, so much that you have to share it. For isn’t that what the moon does every month, reflecting the sun’s light, then spilling it out into heaven, so we can easily see in the dark as we pick our way along our path?

I’m writing a book called Love Yourself Forward that’s all about how I reacted to this event, the drug abuse that followed, how I’m recovering now, and how you can, too. The first step in the process of loving yourself forward is owning it all. Owning all of your dirty truth, from that event, from what you did next and next, and how it’s shaped your life.

Know and own all of it, because it’s yours, even though you never wanted it. Even though you’d in a heartbeat trade all that wisdom and pain to have them back in your life.

This post is dedicated to the memory of my father, Armand Capanna, who taught me, among other things, to love and respect language, and to learn how to wield it well.

Armand A. Capanna, June 11, 1922 – June 27, 1968

With love,


by Phyllis Capanna © 2016 joyreport

All content is the sole property of Phyllis Capanna. If you are reading this content on another site, it has been reposted without the author’s permission and is in violation of the DMCA.  © 2016 Phyllis Capanna


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *