What Do You Tell Your Children About Death?

It’s been an awful year.

We’ve lost three of our beloved elders. My sister-in-law’s health is precarious and we’re blazing the trail to bring her back to health.

Also, my mom and I are in a bit of a row and it’s all her fault. (Oh yes it is, mom! Well. Maybe I was a bit preachy and condescending. And a little patronizing and impatient. And wanted to smack you a good one. But I didn’t, I held back. I only imagined smacking you and it was very satisfying. Except if I really hurt you, which I don’t want to do … very much).

My husband called Sunday night to tell me that his dad, who had been in the hospital three weeks, had finally passed away. 

I decided not to tell my daughters until the following day so they could get a good night’s sleep before the first day back to school.

Unfortunately, they overheard me. I’m not known for my discretion. We’d been warning them Pop Pop might die and had been talking to them as best we could about death, so they weren’t surprised, but they were afraid, sad and a bit panicky.

I began to talk myself into a hole. Being agnostic I couldn’t give them the answers I thought they were looking for about what happens to the spirit after death.

Is there really a God or heaven? I can never answer those questions with iron-clad certainty, because I don’t know.

I use a lot of phrases like Higher Power, Benign Energy and occasionally, The Force. I even get scientific, stating that energy can’t be destroyed, it can only be transformed into a different kind of energy. And a person’s soul is energy.

Needless to say, these explanations got me nowhere.

So I started to sing. I’ve always thought I had a lovely singing voice until I recently recorded myself singing. Then I listened. Turns out I’m a terrible singer. I can hear Simon saying, “Your voice sounds like six alley cats being neutered by a madman with a dull knife!”

Regardless, I sang “My Favorite Things” from The Sound Of Music. Like I was in a bad movie. 

Here are the lyrics in case you forgot them:

“Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens,
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens,
Brown paper packages tied up with strings,T
hese are a few of my favorite things.

“Cream colored ponies and crisp apple streudels,
Doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles,Wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings,
These are a few of my favorite things,
Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes,
Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes,
Silver white winters that melt into springs,
These are a few of my favorite things

“When the dog bites,
When the bee stings,
When I’m feeling sad,
I simply remember my favorite things,And then I don’t feel so bad.”

You have my permission to use them. Because they worked.

Now Bridget and Clare want to sing them every night, because it seems to help. I hope, in times of adversity, sorrow and uncertainty, they can still hold onto their favorite things.

Grandma Sue, Papa Guido and Pop Pop, we love you. We miss you. You’ve left us better than you found us.

Henry with Pop Pop and Granny at our wedding in 2001.

25 thoughts on “What Do You Tell Your Children About Death?”

  1. Very nice post Shannon. You guys have been in my thoughts over the last week. I am glad to hear that the Julie Andrews song worked so well with your daughters.

    By the way, if you have a video of your singing this on YouTube, I would be most interested in seeing it 🙂 I can let you know if I think “Your voice sounds like six alley cats being neutered by a madman with a dull knife!”

    1. Shannon Colleary

      Hi Michael — thanks for your kind thoughts. Just so you know there is no way I’m putting my singing out there. I could be the next “Fridays” girl. Only a lot older.

  2. Oh my gosh, even with a serious post like this your humor still comes through. When you didn’t know how to answer the questions anymore you started to sing! LOL OMG you are an awesome mom.

    My adopted son asked those questions about a month ago (his birth father had died when he was 6 months old) -We are Christians, and trying to explain our view of heaven to a five year old who has only been speaking English was difficult. I said, “When you die you get to go actually be with God, all the sadness with our partial separation on earth is over. You feel complete.” I got back a blank stare and heard crickets.

    I needed another angle. I said, think of someone else and you were stick in a closet. And they wanted to know what it looked like outside. You could try to talk to them about it, or draw pictures. Then one day they get to go out of the closet and see the world. It is much different than even the pictures you could show them. It is better! It is real! That is like heaven.

    That worked, and that is really what we believe…so whew..don’t have to answer that again for awhile!

    1. Shannon Colleary

      Jamie I love the closet analogy. It’s very simple and easy for a child to picture and makes death seem a lot less scary. Thank you!

  3. What a year. 🙁 You have an admirable way of getting through difficult times…I never thought of singing my way through grief. I’d probably just revert to old Smiths songs, though, so the method might work better for you than for me.

    Your humor is what keeps me coming back to read this blog.

    1. Shannon Colleary

      Hi Jennifer — I’m so glad you come back to my blog! I can naturally be very morbid, so thank God I also have a sense of humor.

    1. Shannon Colleary

      Thanks Lexi — that was a high road parenting moment. Trust me, it doesn’t always happen. But every day I try try again.

  4. Kim Tracy Prince

    When my friend died in November and I was inconsolable I told my young boys that Auntie Lisa had to go to Heaven and I was sad because I will never get to play with her again, but that I am sure she is happy and having fun there. When I cry about it, my 4-yr old pats me on the arm and says “poor baby, you miss Auntie Lisa don’t you?”

  5. I’ve struggled with those same questions about what happens after death. And religion–Amalia now 12 has repeatedly asked, “So what are we anyway?” Sort of Buddhist? Sort of nothing I can name? She decided on her own that your soul goes to Heaven and that’s a good thing and your soul has a lot to do with what makes you love other people. It wasn’t a complete theological philosophy, but it seems to all make sense to her so I’m glad.

    Singing was truly inspired. I will remember that one. Not being pitch-perfect probably layered the moment with real emotion. A sort of metaphor for grief and sadness. But I’m taking your word on your voice having barely heard you speak, never mind sing.

    I’m sorry all of this loss is coming at once. Get lots of sleep because for your daughters the grief and questions will crack open at the most unpredictable times. Hang in there. Keeping writing your beautiful posts. It helps.

    1. Deborah – I’m in denial about my bad singing. I’ve now decided the recording equipment must have malfunctioned. I love hearing how other moms talk to their kids about death and what happens after. I’m going to steal some of these nuggets of wisdom. xo

  6. Shannon, I also left you a message on FB. I’m sorry for your loss …and that of your family. We all grieve so differently. When my Dad died, I caught myself singing/playing piano (and no, I won’t brag that I have any special voice either). Another sibling, just got to work…washing dishes, cleaning, just staying busy.

    1. Hi Elisa — I just spent the day with my sister-in-law taking care of some of her medical issues and that felt good. Usually it’s my husband or other sister-in-law that leaps into the breach but neither of them could do it today. My friends took my girls so I could do it. I’m realizing now more than ever how important family and community are. I wish my mother-in-law didn’t have to go through all of this. But it’s definitely reminded me of what’s important.

  7. Wow, just two days ago my 4-year-old daughter came up to me and said, “Mom, let’s talk about dying.” This was my answer to her questions: I told her people live until they’re super, super old, then their soul goes to heaven. I used a glove on my hand to show how the soul (my hand) slips in (to the glove “body”) when we’re born and slips out when we die. We talked about how God and Jesus are in heaven, and mommy and daddy and all the people we love will be waiting for her there. At first she kept saying, “I want to go to heaven now!” I was like, “Uhh, NO.” And then later she was upset and saying, “I want to keep my soul!” I told her she IS her soul and she’ll always have it and she’ll always be Maya.

    1. Jo I love the glove idea. That is so beautiful and eloquent! I feel reassured by that image and it also feels right. Thanks so much for sharing that.

  8. Thanks Shannon…glad you understood what I was trying to say with all those typos. After reading that back I’m officially retiring from commenting with my IPhone.

  9. Last Fall, my father died. It was quite unexpected although we knew he was ill for about 2 months prior to his death. My son was very close to him….in fact for the first couple of years of his life, my father took care of him while I worked as a nurse. It was difficult…extremely difficult and painful….we spent a lot of time talking to him, preparing him. And then we stopped talking about it b/c it was too painful for him. I still don’t know if he completely gets it, but he does understand that grandpa isn’t here anymore…

    1. Hi Caryn — I’m so sorry to hear about the loss of your father. He sounds like a wonderful grandpa. As I’m reading all of your comments I’m realizing that there’s no perfect or absolute way to tell our children about death. It’s still so incomprehensible to me that someone can be there talking to you, fully inhabiting life and then suddenly gone. I can’t really even explain it to myself. Sometimes I’m jealous of devoutly religious people because their beliefs can give them such great comfort. But what I hear in these comments are loving, thoughtful moms. And that makes me feel so hopeful.

  10. I love that you were able to make this amazing new tradition of thinking of the positive things in life with your children! I am a strong believer in the power of “the attitude of gratitude” and positive thinking! That said, losing a loved one is never easy and I will be thinking of you. Best wishes!

  11. Ugh. I’m so sorry you’re suffering such a string of losses. If your kids find you up at 1am making them dresses out of curtains, blame the grief.

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