A Child’s View of Dying

“Now I can have my television back,” the six-year old said.

Death has its rewards.

When I was a hospice chaplain, that’s what the youngest grandson of a patient declared soon after the death. From the mouth of babes, eh? “Unless you become like a child, you won’t enter the kingdom of God,” Jesus said. And it’s not just Christianity, for Buddha reportedly expressed, “The heart of a child is like that of Buddha.”

But a television?

All of us present chuckled when the youngster spoke of his entertainment plans. We laughed sadly—and joyfully—because of what had occurred a few minutes before . . . and what had been happening for quite a while. The grandfather had lived with the family for longer than his grandson’s lifespan: eight years. That meant adjustments for everyone. Sometimes the household had to be very quiet—hard for any kid. Trips to Disneyland were postponed. Friends couldn’t come over at certain times. Holidays were low-key.

In the final months of the grandfather’s life, with most of his time spent in a bed, he got to have the television in his room.

None of the sacrifices were easy for the six-year old or his nearly nine-year old brother.

Not long after I first visited the family, the patient’s daughter (and the boys’ mother) decided the best way to celebrate her father’s life was a simple ceremony at home soon after he died. She and I exchanged ideas and came up with appropriate words and actions to use. Because of our decisions, the patient’s chart noted I was to be called at the time of death.

The two grandchildren would gather flowers from their garden.

A John Denver song the grandfather liked would be played. (When a fellow is from West Virginia, “Take Me Home, Country Roads” is the obvious choice!)

I’d read from scripture. The family would share memories.

And that’s how it happened.

Before the grandchild remembered he’d get his television back, the family, the hospice nurse, and I sat on the floor in the grandfather’s room. Accompanied by fresh flowers, we gave thanks for his life. I mentioned he hadn’t been a religious person, and had once told me that the few times he’d gone to church—a long, long while back—was mostly to see if there’d be any pretty girls to date.

Everyone smiled.

The daughter shared about how important it was to keep Dad at home. She’d vowed that he’d never have to go to another hospital. She, with hospice’s help, had kept her promise. The kids remembered him wishing them well as they left for school each day.

I’ve been part of elaborate memorial services, with pipe organs piping and fancy words preached. I’ve prayed for and with people during funerals that took place in ornate sanctuaries and unadorned, dark-paneled mortuary chapels. None were any more meaningful than spending time in that room where a grandfather once lived.

I learned from that six-year old. As we remembered his grandfather, a pile of tissue accumulated in front of his skinny knees. He cried; everyone in the family cried. Grandfather’s dying was hard. And yet even in the most tragic losses, where the wounds of death cut deeply from the ones that died to those they loved, the living will hopefully seek ways to face the future.

“Now I can have my television back.”

But not before his grandfather was remembered and celebrated. And not without being held by his parents and being told—now and every day—how much he too was loved.

I advocate for honesty with children (and adults, too) about death. We don’t have to explain everything, but kids can usually comprehend more than what we think. In grief groups I’ve lead, I’ll quote author Patty Dann’s* comment about her five-year old son when she was sharing with him about his father’s—her husband’s—illness:

. . . “Jake, Daddy has a disease in his brain. It’s called a tumor.”

Jake nodded and said “tubor,” and we began to talk a new language, the language of illness, the language of dying, the language of living with it all. I realized that if Jake could learn the words Tyrannosaurus rex, he could learn glioblastoma.”

Kids, like adults, have silly and selfish reactions to many situations. How could a six-year old not think it’ll be great to have his television back? But I believe he will also have lasting memories about his grandfather. Instead of being protected or ignored as this family dealt with death, he was included. His role was important. His feelings of loss and his questions about death were part of the family’s grieving.

We honor the dead and the living when everyone is included in the grief, and in the healing.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

*From Patty Dann’s The Goldfish Went on Vacation: A Memoir of Loss (and Learning to Tell the Truth About It)

Photo by Arthur Brower / The New York Times Photo Archives

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  1. I totally agree with involving children in the death process as appropriate. I was traumatized as a child when my Grandpa died and didn’t get over it until I was 50 years old. Now I advocate for home funerals, teach people to care for their own at the time of death, and own Alabama’s first truly green burial ground, The Good Earth.

    • Thanks, Shelia!

      Yeah, we can think we are “shielding” kids from death (not talking about it or not participating in some of the rituals), but our “good intentions” can have a cost.

      And thanks for your good work in Alabama and elsewhere.

  2. Yes, tell the truth! Love your comment, “if a child can say tyrannosaurus rex, they can say ? Gliobastoma”
    Thanks for sharing.

  3. Agree children should be part of this. My Daughter was five when my GRANDFATHER died. She stood at the casket and comforted those who came up.

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