real life

'Nana has died.' How I learned to talk to my kids about death.

“Nana has died.”

My partner got these three words out before he started to cry. Again.

My daughter, who is six, went immediately to her dad, and cuddled him. Since she was a tiny baby, someone has held her when she cries, so she knew what to do.

My son, who is four, was reading the signals. Clearly, this was serious, possibly not the time to ask if we were still going on holiday tomorrow, or to ask if he was still getting ice-cream tonight. I could see him processing.

“But when does Nana stop dying?” He asked. “When does she stop being dead?”

Hear Holly and Andrew Daddo talking about talking to kids about grief on the This Glorious Mess podcast, here:

How do you teach children about grief? For many families, the conversation starts around a beloved family pet. Poems are recited over a goldfish in a matchbox, or a hamster under the freshly-turned mound under the lemon tree.

There was no such warm up in our house.

My mother-in-law Julie Shelley was an extraordinary woman.  Of course, we all say that about people when they’re gone, but it’s certainly true, I promise.

Despite a life that had its share of dark moments, Julie was full of light.

She was the life of any party; hungry for people’s stories, always up for a chat, a glass, a cuppa, a hug. She was a woman not defined by her generation or her time, but one who fully embraced the diversity of her modern family.

I wanted the kids to go to Julie’s funeral. I wanted them to say goodbye to the woman who thought about them every day. Who baked deliciously, tacky rotating-doll cakes for them, and insisted on paying for their first school uniforms, who kept a box of toys and pens and colouring books in the house she shared with their uncles, so kids would never be bored in their grown-up home.

Julie's cake. Image supplied.

I wanted them to pay tribute to the woman who was uniquely convinced of their genius, who gave them the best hugs, who requested that every year for Christmas her present would be a book of photos of them so they were always within arm's length.

But then. Watching Matilda holding her dad while he cried, I thought, 'How much of this do they need to see?'

It's good for children to understand that their parents are vulnerable. It's important for them to know that we are humans who love our mothers, just as they love theirs. That of course we are sad if our mother is gone.

Brent and I talked and talked, and talked some more.

"Be there just for Brent," a smart girlfriend told me. "Don't be worrying about the kids in the moment where he just needs to be devastated about losing his mum."

She was right, as your wise friends so often are.


Celine Dion's partner Rene Angelil died in March this year. The singer told her three children by relating it to the Disney kids film, UP. 

The kids didn't need to spend the day around sombre people sobbing, drinking, telling stories and crying some more. They didn't need to see the casket, and know that Nana was in there.

And so we decided to keep the kids away from Julie's official farewell.

Julie, Holly and the family in Sydney. Image supplied.

Because they were already full of questions about that. "Where has Nana gone?" Billy kept asking. "Where is she now?"

"Are they going to burn her?" Matilda wanted to know. "Is she going to heaven?"

Kids ask difficult questions at difficult times. Sometimes, you can't answer them until much, much later.

So they both needed a place to say goodbye. And we decided to go to Julie's house and say it there. In the place where they always saw her, in a context where it made the most sense.

They painted pebbles and shells and stones she would have liked and arranged them in a mini-garden for Nana. I bought balloons in their and Julie's favourite colours.


A child's tribute

And they answered the question, "What did you love most about Nana?" in their own words. Matilda had even made up a poem. The last line rhymed 'Yooooou" with "Oooooooh".

Then they let the balloons go, and Nana, Billy and Matilda all flew off together into the inner-Sydney sky. "She's beating us!" yelled Billy as the purple balloon took the lead, heading higher, higher.

It was perfect. Julie would have loved it.

How do you talk to children about death? 

Listen to the full episode of This Glorious Mess here and subscribe in iTunes.

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