Speaking to Children About Death

Yesterday, we held the funeral service for my Uncle Joe, who died at age 49 to Glioblastoma multiforme. Having lost his first wife, and the mother of his 3 boys, Becky to cancer years earlier, Joe was no stranger to death or dying. I’ve written about what he taught me about accepting emotions and diving into doing, but the greatest thing he taught me was about death itself.


Photo by Joe Buckalew

In this video interview with The Conversation Project, Joe talks about the importance of speaking about death and how we want to die with our loved ones. You can download The Conversation Project’s starter kit here and discuss death beyond Advance Directives or medical forms. After he’d tried out several options including brain surgery and chemo, Joe came to terms with the fact that his brain cancer was terminal and decided to focus on living with quality rather than pushing for extra years of a miserable existence. The decision to stop chemotherapy was not an easy one, but I imagine it was harder for us than it was for Joe, who had seen the beauty of experiencing Becky die comfortably at home, surrounded by her loved ones rather than in a hospital.

Joe was originally given 14 months shortly after the boys were born. In his upcoming book, Too Much Fun Dying to Stop Now, Joe says, “My best shot at extending my life and living well is staying in the flow of life and free of fear as fully as I am able. Period.” He was right. Instead of 14 months, he lived 2 and a half happy years beyond that original prognosis. He wrote a book, built benches, a reflecting pond, visited friends and family all over, and finished many projects he had around the house.

When I asked Joe how to speak about death with my boys, he said,

Look to fall.
It is here now.
In everything, one sees form.
All form decays and passes back.
Nothing wrong with death.
I will die.
All people do.
What is wrong with dying, if one has truly lived?
We can not live with fear of death or we live very limited indeed.
Death and dying are frightening to us as they were frighting to our parents to and the world.
Basically, if we truly want to live well today, this fear of death must be understood as what it is – a fear handed down to us.
So, when talking to my sons about death and dying, it was very important to me that the boys see all of it, not just the happy parts. The more we face our fears, the less hold they have on our lives.
I would speak to it early and often as a parent. Of the beauty of impermanence and how all form changes and ends.
Then they see it as not something separate, but it is the way of form itself.
Nothing right or wrong, good or evil about it.
Have a great day.

Joe talks more about fear and living well in this Professor Blastoff podcast, which you can listen to here. They introduce Joe at 16:30. In it, he speaks about living without fear and how to approach dying with a happy heart.

Photo by Joe

Photo by Joe

In his last days, Joe was still imparting wisdom. Here are four quotes I found very helpful:

Flexibility is essential for finding solutions.

Division does not exist except for what you make of it.

Live to grow… Grow to love.

Life is what happens.