How do you talk to kids about death?
Anastasia doesn’t claim to have all the answers about how to talk to kids about death, and she doesn’t claim to kids—even her own—that she knows what happens when we die. But she is clear on three things: first, you can help make what’s scary less so; second, you can approach their questions with curiosity and collaboration; and third, you can watch them carefully to see how they’re handling it.
The truth is that we often shut down kids’ questions when they become too uncomfortable—for us or, we fear, for them.
For instance, when six-year-old Polly asked her mom if their aunt Kay had been buried yet, her mom said no, she’d been cremated.
“What’s cremated?” Polly asked.
“Oh, it’s when a body becomes ashes and you scatter them around places that were meaningful to the person who died.”
“So how does a body go from being a body to being ashes?”
This is where her mom got stuck. But going back to Anastasia’s rules of thumb, she answered, “With fire. But it doesn’t hurt at all. Still, honestly, I don’t know much about it. Would you like to explore more about how it works?”
If a child moves on, Anastasia said, let them. If they come back to it, let them. And don’t shy away from honesty about how the conversation makes you feel. “Allow yourself to say, ‘I don’t love to think about it,’” Anastasia said. “They might say, ‘I don’t love to think about it either.’”
One of Anastasia’s kids was terrified of death, starting when he was about six. Each bedtime for a few years she would go to him to help calm his anxiety. “Sometimes I would say, ‘you’re thinking a lot about death, but we’re very much alive right now.
And no one we know who is close to us is sick, so tell me more about what that fear is about.’” Her son explained to her that he feared being in a situation where he couldn’t move or talk but was still thinking. “I started to see those questions as a portal into how to learn more about my child,” Anastasia said. “Where is he going with this? And how will it inform my own understanding— not only of my kid but also of what death might be like?”
Their bedtime conversations led into the subject of what constitutes spirit. “I was relying on books I’d read and then adding to that my own belief that I do think there’s a sort of whoom!, then off we go. I don’t think that we get trapped.”
But as abstract as their conversations became, Anastasia was always, always careful to end by bringing her son back to the present and emphasizing reality. “I would say, ‘You are in this bed, very much alive. I’m sitting next to you, very much alive. The trees outside are alive.
No one is in danger here in this space. Let’s feel your heartbeat in your body. Feel my hand touching yours.’ It was a way to lead myself back as well. And I wasn’t lying to him or saying, ‘Don’t worry about that,’ but I was trying to bring him back to the now.”
As comfortable as Anastasia is writing about death and talking about it with her kids, she was hit with a moment when she reckoned with just how forbidden a subject it is. She was at a bookstore in Brooklyn, preparing to do a reading of Death Is Stupid for seven or eight kids. She’d given them paper, glue sticks, and pictures of animals so they could make collages while she was reading to them. And then it hit her. “I thought, ‘I’m about to open this book and tell them they’re all going to die. What was I thinking? How did I think this was okay?’”
“I got to the page where it says, ‘eventually every life comes to an end.’ And I just said the words and I took a deep breath and looked them in the eye. And let it be quiet. One girl looked at me with her bright eyes and nodded and gave me a half-smile.”
Anastasia realized that she wasn’t doing any harm by saying it, even if she had deep-seated cultural programming that told her otherwise. She understood that the conversation was going to happen to them anyway at some point, and here she’d written a book to help the discussion go gently. She kept reading.
Although approaches with kids will necessarily vary, the fact is that they’re generally good at talking about death. It’s only when they grow up and begin to see it as a forbidden topic that they shut down.
By the time someone is in their fifties or sixties the chances that you’re going to affect their views about death are minimal—those views are pretty set. But children can grow up looking at death differently—not as a topic to be avoided but one to ponder with curiosity. That’s why I encourage inviting kids into conversations about death. If they don’t want to talk about it, fine. But if they gravitate toward it, let them in.
Excerpt from "Let's Talk About Death (Over Dinner)" courtesy of the author.