We Talked to Our Kids About Death, and It Got Surreal Fast
Nana's in the clouds with the tooth fairy, and that's why old people don't have teeth.
I find the timing of when people pass away to be endlessly interesting. Sometimes a celebrity dies, but their death is overshadowed by the death of someone even more famous. Then there are instances when two people with no previous connection pass away the same week and become inextricably linked in my mind. My wife’s grandmother, Myra, and Luke Perry died the same week. Myra’s death was hard, but, weirdly, Luke Perry’s hit me harder than I expected. I’m guessing his forever imprint in my mind as a high school kid made his death at 52 feel even more premature.
None of these feelings are pleasant, and I’m envious (and grateful) that my children, before this, hadn’t really had to grieve. Like most parents, I try to shield them from the dark realities of the world — hatred, violence, illness, and the main event: death. My wife, Lauren, and I did a nice job hanging on for a while. But Liz and Matt are 6 and 4 now, and their Nana, their great-grandmother, had just passed away. It was the first death of someone they saw regularly. It was time to tell them, but how do you talk to kids about death? The conversation went a little something like this.
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Me: We need to have a family talk. Can everyone sit down?
Fourteen hours later…
Me: Mommy and I have something we want to talk to you about.
Liz: Are we planning my half-birthday?
Lauren: No. There’s no party for your half-birthday.
Lauren: Because we don’t have half-birthday parties.
Matt: Tomorrow is Mickey’s birthday.
Liz: You just got [the Mickey Mouse stuffed animal] yesterday. It’s not his birthday.
Matt: Yes, it is.
Me: He’s a fucking stuffed animal. He doesn’t have a birthday. Mommy and I want to talk to you about something serious.
Lauren: OK, we wanted to tell you that Nana died.
Me, reciting straight from Google: That means her body stopped working.
Lauren: And we’re not going to be able to visit her anymore.
Liz: Where did she go?
Me: She went to heaven.
Liz: Where is heaven?
Me: For me it’s the Japanese restaurant in the Borgata hotel. My chips are at the table and I’m taking a break to eat a spicy tuna hand roll knowing I have six hours of poker to play. It’s in the clouds.
Matt: Is she floating up there?
Liz: What about on a day when there’s no clouds?
Lauren: Can I give you a hug? That’s a really great question. Well, on those days she goes somewhere else.
Liz: Where does she go?
Me: Wherever she wants. If it was me, Aruba.
Liz: Does she go to our hotel we go to in Aruba?
Me: I don’t know if she goes to Aruba.
Matt: I would go in the lazy river all day.
Liz: And you wouldn’t need to wear a wristband.
Lauren: We’re getting off track here.
Matt: Daddy, because I’m drinking all my milk, I’m getting hair on my knees.
Me: OK, that’s random… and not true.
Liz: Is Nana floating because she can’t walk?
Lauren: She can walk now.
Liz: So why doesn’t everyone who can’t walk just die. Then they can walk.
Me: Well, there are some disadvantages.
Matt: Who is Nana with in heaven?
Me: Well, there’s some people I can definitely rule out. She’s with her Mommy and Daddy.
Liz: Does she come back at night?
Me: I hope not. That would freak me out. No.
Liz: Why do we die?
Lauren: Because that’s the way God did it. We live a long life, hopefully, and then when it’s our time, we go off into the clouds.
Matt: Is she in the clouds with the tooth fairy?
Liz: Is that why old people don’t have teeth?
I’m feeling like my kids are either really smart or really dumb, but I’m not sure which.
Matt: Are you going to die, Daddy?
Me: Pass. Why do I get all the hard questions? Eventually, yes.
Me: Well, according to your Mom, if I keep eating ice cream late at night, any day now. Hopefully a long time from now.
Liz: Is there a chance it will be soon?
Me: Probably not. Fuck, I need to get to the gym.
Liz: Are [our dogs] Sawyer and Smurf going to die?
Me: If there was a God, they wouldn’t, but Sawyer’s 11, so… probably soon. Yes, and they will go to doggy heaven.
Liz: Is that different from regular heaven?
Me: If it is, I’m putting in my name for doggy heaven. I’m not sure.
Liz: I heard you die when you lose your eyelashes.
Me: That’s not right.
I check my eyelashes to be extra safe.
Liz: Where is God? Is he in the clouds too?
Matt: What does he look like?
Lauren: It might be a she.
Liz: But I heard he has a beard.
Lauren: We don’t know that for sure.
Liz: Can a woman have a beard?
Lauren: Not usually, but I guess it’s possible.
Matt: Daddy, you have a beard.
Me: I know. Mommy doesn’t love it. I think it looks good.
Liz: Daddy, does everyone die?
Me: Everyone except for Kirk Douglas, apparently. Yes, eventually everyone.
Liz: Am I going to die?
Me: Not for a long, long time.
Liz: But I don’t want to die.
Lauren (cutting me off, since this answer requires skills she was born with): It’s part of life. You’re going to live a full life and go to college and get married and have your own family, and then one day you’ll be grandparents and you will see the most amazing things in your life. Cars might fly. And they’re probably going to go to Mars. You have so much to look forward to. Life is an amazing thing. And you should be so excited for everything that you’re going to experience. And Nana will be looking down on you the whole time.
Matt: I will miss playing with Nana.
Lauren: Me too.
Brett Grayson is a father of two and attorney living in New Jersey. When he’s not advocating for his lovable clients, he is trying to find the humor in the challenges of marriage and parenting. He’s the author of the memoir What Could Go Wrong? My Mostly Comedic Journey Through Marriage, Parenting and Depression.
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