How my kids taught me to deal with death

After the recent death of a beloved family member, Tracy Chappell is touched by the lessons her daughters have taught her about grieving.

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Anna’s letter to Tracy’s aunt. Photo: Tracy Chappell

Follow along as Today’s Parent senior editor Tracy Chappell shares her refreshingly positive take on parenting her two young daughters. She’s been blogging her relatable experiences for our publication since 2005.

My kids never saw Aunt Debbie when she was very sick, and I’m OK with that. They visited her in the hospital about a month after her cancer diagnosis, and she was still the bubbly, joyful woman they knew and adored. The woman who made the perfect gingerbread cookies at Christmastime and ran the church camp they loved attending every summer and always had a story to tell and gave the biggest, warmest hugs.

Unbelievably, a little over a month later, she would be gone. And while I didn’t bring them up to the hospice where she spent her last week, I was lucky enough to visit several times, and hug her and hold her hand and thank her for all the love and sparkle she added to my life, for my whole life. She was a very special person.

Then we had to tell the kids. Their familiarity with this conversation and the subsequent events to mourn and celebrate the life of someone they loved was as helpful as it was heartbreaking. We said goodbye to three close relatives last year. As I struggled to clear the lump in my throat, they were full of smart questions, both philosophical and practical. Can you catch cancer? How does it make you die? Where will we sit at the funeral? Do we have to wear black clothes?

It helped me then to talk it all out, even when that meant admitting the things that I don’t know, that no one knows. I thought it would keep things raw, and make the tears flow yet again to have to keep dissecting it, but instead, it helped me to start looking at life and death with curiosity, instead of (well, alongside) the anger and bewilderment I was cycling around.

Read more: How to talk to your preschooler about death >

I told them they could wear whatever they wanted, and that Aunt Debbie might like some bright colours. “This isn’t a happy occasion,” Anna declared. “I think it’s more appropriate to wear our black dresses.” And so they did.

When we got to the visitation, I was amazed at my daughters’ ability to walk right up to the casket to see this version of our Aunt Debbie. They were wide-eyed and unafraid, unlike me, who can hardly steal a glance without getting shaky. My five-year-old, Avery, even asked if she could go up again to say goodbye before we left, and wanted to hold my hand, so we went up together. “When will she go to heaven?” Avery asked. I told her that her soul is already there, and that’s she’s already watching over us. The kids went into a reception room and drew and coloured pictures to place with her, sharing heartfelt words of love on Hello Kitty colouring pages—true signs of love for kids, right? It’s hard to believe these strong, brave people are the ones I wasn’t sure I should bring to events like these just months ago. They have taught me better.

Read more: Explaining death to children >

At the funeral, I watched my eight-year-old, Anna, hold hands with and comfort her older cousin, who was crying heavily. Anna handed her tissues and wiped her tears and full-on embraced her in the church pew. Anna was eager to follow along in the hymn book to sing Aunt Debbie’s chosen songs. And outside the church, she said, “Can I go over and hug Grandma and Grandpa?” and she did.

“I was really sad at the funeral but I only cried two tears,” she told me later. “Is that OK?” I explained that everyone feels sadness in different ways, and it doesn’t mean they care more or less, or loved Aunt Debbie more or less. Sometimes you need to cry and let it all out, and other times, our minds go to other places, like remembering fun or happy times we had together.

Anna’s faith in God also took centre stage this weekend. I’ve written before about my kids going to Catholic school and our interesting conversations about faith and religion, since I am, well, undecided about the whole thing. “Anna is happy the funeral is at a church because she feels closer to God there,” Avery informed me. And it was true. Anna quietly prayed during the service, and I know her faith gave her a lot of comfort. Maybe that’s why she was able to reach out when she saw the people she loved hurting. She amazed me with her maturity and generosity.

At tuck-in, we talked more about Aunt Debbie. I asked her why she thinks God called her back to heaven and Anna wasn’t sure. “I think she’s there because God can look after her better than we can here,” she said. “But how do we know for sure for sure that she’s in heaven? How can we tell?” I told her that’s where her faith comes in. I admit I was drawing my line more from A Miracle on 34th Street than the Bible when I said, “Faith means believing in something even when you have no proof. You know it’s true in your heart, even if you can’t see it with your eyes.”

“I believe in heaven,” she told me. “And that Aunt Debbie is an angel there now.”

I told her that’s a beautiful image to always keep in her heart, along with all the incredible memories they were lucky enough to make with my aunt. And I know that Aunt Debbie will have no trouble transitioning to her role as angel up there; she had already mastered it here on earth.

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