Answering kids' questions about death
This interview is from A Kids Book About: The Podcast, with host Matthew Winner and author of A Kids Book About Death, Taryn Schuelke. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
What is death?
Death? Oh man. Well, as I mentioned in my book, to understand what death is, you have to first understand what being alive means.
And if you're listening to this podcast, that means you're alive. So you can start with that.
And being alive means that your body is working, that you are feeling and that your mind is thinking.
And death means when all of those things stop happening. So when your body stops working. The mind stops thinking and the person stops feeling.
That's what death is.
We experience death at a very, very young age. You pick flowers and put them in a vase, but after a few days or weeks, they lose their petals. You see a beetle or worm or a line of ants on the sidewalk and you press them with your finger or step on them, and suddenly they lose all movement.
We feel death differently, grieve differently, depending on who or what has died. And if we’ve had a long or close relationship with that person or thing that has died, we may carry that sadness over weeks, months, or even years.
It’s natural to have lots and lots of questions about death and about dying. So, in this safe space, let’s talk about them today. And we’ll start at the most basic question: Why do people die?
There's a few different ways that people die.
And first and foremost, our bodies, as we get very, very old, they stop working. And so that's one way that people die.
And then another way is if there's a big accident, then the body can stop working because it's so.
Another way is sometimes people make death happen on purpose.
And also there can be really serious illnesses that can cause the body to stop working. They can be really deadly.
Being alive and being able to do things, all kinds of things, is a blessing. That’s probably why thinking about the end of our lives, no matter what our age, can be so scary, don’t you think?
Absolutely. I think death is a scary thing for some people to talk about. People get worried that when they talk about it, it’ll make the person that they're talking with have really big feelings. And sometimes those feelings can be really hard feelings.
So I think the best thing that we can do is make talking about death a more normal thing. Make it to where people don't have to feel to talk about it and, especially with kids, so that kids can really understand what happens and how it makes people feel and so that they can not worry so much and use their imagination to come up with things about what death might be.
So let’s start. As Taryn suggested, let’s make talking about death a more normal thing. And we’ll begin with a reflection.
Yeah, that's a great question.
It makes me feel lots of things. I feel comforted knowing that death is a part of life and it's just something that we will all experience in our lifetime. And so I feel comforted to know I'm not alone.
And it also makes me feel a little worried, cause I wonder what will it be like? Uh, I wonder what will happen around my own time of death.
But it also makes me feel empowered because I have a lot of things that I can choose about what I want for my own death. And I can share those things with people that I care about, and that love me so that they know how to take care of me when that time comes.
One thing we always do on this show is ask how you’re feeling on a given topic. Today, I want to go one step further.
Death is a topic that grownups struggle with as well. And I think a lot of grownups would admit they often don’t know what to say to someone who’s lost someone or something special to death. I’ve heard a number of grownups say. “I’m never exactly sure of the right things to say.”
Taryn had a really helpful response.
I think the hardest part is being brave enough to say something. So, if you're feeling worried or scared, or you have some questions about what death is or what it's like, or maybe someone you know is dying and you're worried it might make your grownup upset to bring it up and talk about it, I think the best thing that we can do is create a trusting and open and honest space to actually talk about this with each other.
One of the things that makes people worried about talking about death is people worried that they're going to say the wrong thing and make somebody feel bad. And while it's really good to be thoughtful about our words and the things we ask and where we ask those things and, and who we say those things too, even more important than that is being open and honest about what we're thinking and feeling.
And so if you're worried [about] telling a trusted grownup that you're worried, if you are feeling like everybody else is crying and I'm not crying, does that make me, you know, look bad? Or does that mean I'm not doing this right?
Asking those hard questions.
By the way, the answer is “no”. Death makes people feel all different ways.
And sometimes people cry and sometimes people don't and that's absolutely okay. But I think keeping the conversation going, keeping it open and finding the courage to talk about it.
Kid Question: What happens when you do die?
Oh, man, that is such a good question. I love that question. I think that I could answer two different ways.
Sometimes when people ask this question, they want to know what happens to someone's body when death is currently happening.
But sometimes people ask this question because they want to know what happens after what happens when you die. What's next?
And those are really great questions to ask. I think everybody in the whole world asks those questions and wants to know. So death looks different for every single person. And the best thing that you can do is ask a grownup that you trust to explain what that might be like.
But if I were to answer that, typically what happens is either death happens very quickly, like I mentioned, if there's a big accident, so death can happen so quickly that the person doesn't even realize it's happening and then it's, and then it's done.
Or it can take a little [while]. And if it takes a little while, the best thing to do is to have that person be cared for by people who work in the medical field. So like doctors and nurses and other people who work in hospitals or a hospice. And those people know exactly what to do. They went to school to learn about it for a long, long time. And they have worked with other families before who are experiencing the same thing. And they're just so good at their job. And so their only job when death is happening is to make sure the dying person is comfortable and calm and peaceful, and they have everything that they need to feel joyful with their family at the end.
And that's what happens when someone dies. Usually.
And then that question of what happens next. That just depends on what your family believes.
So that's a great question to ask your family, or maybe if you go to a religious place, you could ask your religious leader what they think. And that just really does depend on what your family beliefs and here's the truth: I've never died before. So I don't know. I don't know. None of us do, really.
And so whatever your family believes, it can cause a lot of hope. And to know that you feel the same way as your family, or maybe you think about things a little differently and that's okay too.
I mentioned earlier that sometimes, after someone or something we care about a great deal dies, people who loved or cared for that someone or something can grieve for days or weeks or months or even years.
But this time can also transition to time spent staying connected after that someone or something has died.
So there are a lot of different ways that we can take care of someone's body after they die. And every family is different in how they do this, but usually what happens is the people will gather together everyone who knew and loved them, they'll gather together and say some thoughtful words.
There might be songs and then some time to think about that person's life and really taking that time to have a moment, however that may look for you and your family, to mark the end of that person's life is so important.
It's so important for us to have a moment where we say goodbye, and that helps us as we move forward in what we call grief.
Grief really is learning how to live your life when someone has gone. So taking that time right after they die is really important to mark the end of that life.
The things we’re sharing in today’s episode might help you to support friends and community members who have lost someone or something close to them.
But we’re leaving these words here to help you, as well. Because you might not know how to feel. It might be a totally new and different and strange feeling. No matter what you feel, it’s okay.
It’s hard. We know it’s hard. And we know you’ll get through it, too.
So if someone just recently died, that's the hardest time.
It's a really difficult time to be in, and you might be feeling a lot of different things. And I think the best thing that someone can do, if someone just died that they know and love, is to go easy on yourself and to rest as much as you can and take time to really take care of yourself because your body is getting used to living without that person around you. And so your body's going to need some time to adjust to that. And so is your mind in your heart?
So taking it easy on yourself, finding ways to really take care of you is probably the best thing you can do.
Another good thing is to find someone that makes you laugh, find some, that one that can be there with you and so that you don't have to feel alone. Sometimes people feel really lonely during that, during that time after someone has died. And so finding people that you love and care about to be with is also really helpful.
Before we end our time together, I want to leave you with some words and ideas to help keep that someone or something loved and cared for alive in your life. Because, as Taryn shares, even though their body has died, there are many, many beautiful ways to see and honor those people and pets and special things after they have died.
Absolutely. And this is something that brings so much comfort.
When someone dies, that relationship doesn't end because the love is still [there]. The people who are still alive, still have love for that person. And so that continues to grow and you get to grow that in many different ways and figure that out and how you want to do that.
So some of the ways I've seen in my own life and in the place that I work, I've seen some really beautiful things that families have done. So we just had the holiday season and a lot of times holidays are about families getting together and spending time together. And there's a lot of times that families share meals together.
And so I've seen where sometimes families will leave an empty chair at the table for the person who has died just as a way to show that they are still thinking about that person. And that person has a place in their family.
Sometimes they will get gifts for that person on their birthday and then give those gifts to someone who needs it as a way to show love and show that this person's life still matters so much, that gifts are still being given.
So there are some really great ways to do that.
It could be as simple as wearing their favorite color, wearing a shirt their favorite color. Or listening to a song that they loved or eating their favorite meal. Some people release balloons in the air and watch them flood up into this sky. Other people light candles and spend some time thinking about them.
But truly, probably the easiest and most normal and natural way to keep that relationship going is to share stories, to share memories of how they made you feel funny times, things that remind you of them when you're thinking about them.
And one thing I've heard the most that is the most comforting to families is when other people say their loved one's name out loud. They love to hear the person's name said, so don't be afraid to say their name and don't be afraid to share memories and stories. It's really just super special when someone does that after someone dies.
Each week on A Kids Book About: The Podcast, we talk about the big things going on in your world with a different author from our A Kids Book About series. This week we spoke with Taryn Schuelke, grief and bereavement specialist and the author of A Kids Book About Death.