THE BLOG
01/15/2015 06:08 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2015

(Inadequately) Talking to My Kid About Death

Sue Robins

This past year, our family has experienced the death of my grandma and the recent deaths of both my husband's father and our family dog, Sammy.

In the midst of grief, we had to deliver our own poorly-planned, scrambled explanations of death to our youngest son Aaron, who is 11 and has Down syndrome. At the best of times, I have a hard time guessing what's going on in Aaron's head. His cognitive disability means that he doesn't always acknowledge his understanding in ways that we comprehend. His emotions and attempts to communicate can come out as misdirected behavior. The challenge is to be compassionate and patient with him during hard family times.

I do know that I don't know what happens after someone dies. We are lacking in organized faith, and this isn't helpful at these times. When Aaron's great-grandma passed away last March, we gave him a simple explanation that Grandma Joan was very old (she was 92) and that her body was broken. This felt true. To answer the question of "where did Grandma go?" we leaned upon my mom's explanation of where her own father went when he died in a coal mining accident when my mom was only 4 years old. "Grandma is up in the stars, looking down on us," we told Aaron.

We stuck with the same explanation when his Grandpa Barry died earlier this month. My father-in-law's death was more difficult to explain, because he wasn't nearly as old as Aaron's great grandma. "Grandpa's heart stopped working," we said, rather inadequately. We said he's up in the stars too. Aaron's main concern was that his own dad was upset, and he seemed to take solace in giving out hugs to try to make him feel better. We shared tender memories of visiting Grandpa Barry's house (he had a pool!), eating hearty barbecued meals out on the back patio and Aaron and his grandpa mowing the expansive lawn on grandpa's ride-on tractor.

I can tell Aaron isn't sure what to do with his emotions. MY GRANDPA DIED! he sometimes yells. I haven't been that successful in explaining that in North America, we don't run around yelling about death.

Thankfully, yesterday we had an appointment with his behavior psychologist. She told us to use developmentally appropriate language for Aaron, so telling him about hearts and bodies that broke was fine. She encouraged us to keep sharing memories, and to answer any questions as honestly as we could when they came up. We printed off photos of Aaron with Grandpa Barry and sent them to school in case he wanted to talk to his teachers.

But I think Aaron is onto us and our weak, white lies. The fact is, we don't really know where people go after they die. Their spirits are simply gone from our world. "But the stars are science," Aaron said last night, suspiciously, after we talked to him about people being in the stars. In lieu of a better, more spiritual stories, that's all our family has. (For families with stronger faith than ours, take comfort that you have more robust explanations to draw upon).

Then finally, Sammy, our 11-year-old chocolate lab. I don't know why I've been crying more about a dog than I did about actual people, but I have. We had to take Sam, who was riddled with cancer and arthritis, to the veterinarian on Tuesday to be euthanized. I lied to Aaron about that (or as I like to say, I withheld information). Explaining that you take loved ones to the doctor and then they die wouldn't bode well for us the next time Aaron has to go to the pediatrician. So we just said that Sam died, too, and that he's up in heaven in the stars, fetching tennis balls for Grandma Joan and Grandpa Barry. That's the best I've got, and I really hope that it is true.

Please go tell the people (and dogs) that you love that you love them. We are all only here for a limited time in this beautiful, messed up world.