Random Thought: When is it appropriate to talk to your child about death?


Our family recently received some very bad news.  My step-father, who has been in our lives for 20+ years, was just diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  Realizing that this is a very aggressive cancer, as a family we are coming to grips with this and trying to help him get the care he needs.   We are confident he is in good hands with his doctors (there is a team of them working on his case) but his long-term chances of survival are not good.  We know his time is limited and we are focusing now on his treatments and medical care.

My kids love him.  They call him Joe-Joe Pop.   I don’t know how he does it but every single year he is able to pick out the one simple gift that winds up to be my kids’ favorites.   He is a big fan of “Hess” trucks, airplanes, cars, you name it and he’s quick to buy the year’s featured Hess toy at the beginning of the holiday season for Big Bro.   I do not know how he manages it for Red, but maybe Red just loves her toy from Joe-Joe Pop the best because Big Bro loves HIS toy from Joe-Joe Pop the best.  Anyway, he is loved by my older kids.   And they ask for him.

I remember my first discussion with my mother on the topic of death.   I was five.  Her brother (my favorite, crazy uncle) had died, unexpectantly (he was only 31).   I remember where we were at the time (at the top of the stairs at home) and I remember the words she used.   I think it is etched in my memory because she was upset.  I remember consoling her.   I do remember that notion did not sink in right away.   I remember that I asked for him on several occasions later and that just threw my mom into another crying spell.

I know that I am going to get these kids to see him and talk with him so they have the opportunity to remember him.   And I would like to do this quickly, before his condition deteriorates.  However,  the logistics of where I live complicates things.   I am on the West Coast and my family is on the East Coast (painful, painful, painful to me these days).    So there will be some planning involved.   I’m not sure when this trip should happen — obviously when its best for him — depending on how he feels and where he is with treatments.    But my question is, what do I tell these kids?   What do I say when we leave?   My 5-year-old knows that animals and plants can be “dead”, but we have not talked about loved ones.    When is it OK?   I think it may be OK with my 5-year-old, but with my own history I know that I did not fully “get it”.  So is even 5 too young?

Comments and thoughts appreciated –

– Mama K

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