How did you experience death for the first time? Was it the traumatic death of a pet or did you lose a beloved grandparent? Maybe a kindergarten classmate just disappeared one day and nobody would answer your questions about where they went or what happened.

Or maybe the death you experienced was not so emotionally intense: perhaps you found a dead butterfly lying on the sidewalk, and your older sister explained death to you in a way that you could grasp.

I suspect that learning about death is hard for many children, but I also suspect that some ways are more painful than others.

My own awakening happened about the time when I was starting elementary school. The two little boys who lived next door, Lonny and Glen, sometimes played cowboys in our back yard or cooled off in the hose spray when my mother was out watering her petunias on a hot summer day and accidentally-on-purpose squirted the gang of sweaty kids who were hoping an errant spray would soak them.

Lonny and Glen lived with their grandfather, and I don’t remember other adults being around. Seen through my five-year-old eyes, the boys’ grandfather was old and grouchy, but as I look back, I realize he might have been in his early 60s (which, in case you are wondering, is mighty young – at least from my current vantage point), and he was probably doing his best to raise his grandsons so they’d become law-abiding citizens.

Early one morning, an ambulance came screeching down the street and stopped in front of Lonny and Glen’s house. The boys’ grandfather was wheeled out on a gurney and taken away in the ambulance. When I asked my mother what was happening, she shushed me and urged me to finish my bowl of Cheerios. A week or so later, she got gussied up in her church clothes in the middle of the week. She told me she had a big-peoples’ event to go to, and I needed to stay home, mind the sitter and play nicely with my sister. No amount of pestering would convince her to take me along. I was curious and felt uneasy that no one would explain what was going on. She told me that Lonny and Glen’s grandfather had died, and little kids didn’t belong at funerals. Period.

I know my mother meant well, and I understand now that having four kids in five years meant her hands were always full. But here’s what I learned from this initial brush with death: Death is mysterious and big people get very nervous when kids pester them for details about dying, death and funerals. I didn’t understand why Lonnie and Glen had to move away, but I secretly hoped a girl my age would move in next door instead of a family with only boys.

By the time I was ten or so, I read the newspaper regularly – well, at least the comics (which we called the “funnies”) – and if no one was around, I snuck a peek at the obituaries. How old were people when they died? What did they die of? By then, I understood some basic facts about death. Dying meant you were no longer alive, your soul went to heaven, and your body got buried. But I couldn’t really wrap my brain around all the implications of those basics.

My sneaky obituary-reading habits led me to more unsettling conclusions: Apparently, people died at different ages. Were my parents going to die at young ages or old ages? I figured out pretty quickly that I wouldn’t be able to divine an answer to that question from reading the obituaries.

In one obituary, I read about the death of a teenager. That one scared me. Was I going to die? If a teenager could die, then maybe it was possible for me to die. Afterall, I would be a teenager soon. I worried more, but I didn’t know where to look for definitive answers. Back in the 1950s, we got our first black-and-white television set; stealth googling sessions were not an option.

By the time my father got home from his job teaching high school physics, he was tired and just wanted a little peace and quiet so he could read the newspaper. I suspected that if I caught him at just the right moment, he might be willing to explain death to me. After all, the bedtime stories he told us were factually accurate – not fanciful made-up stories about princesses or talking frogs or other silly topics. His stories were true, and they covered a range of subjects like how steel is made, why municipal drinking water is treated with chlorine, how caterpillars form chrysalises (also known as chrysalides) from which they later emerge as butterflies, and why the leaves of deciduous trees turn red in the fall. These stories – which my sister and I called “true-eys” or “truies”– were intended to educate us about things Father thought we should know.

But, I did not ask my dad to tell me a true bedtime story about death. I’d already figured out it was a taboo subject, and I felt slightly ashamed that I was curious about it. I decided to keep my mouth shut and pay attention, which became an ingrained habit and a successful coping mechanism for me as I navigated my childhood and adolescence.

I suspect my story is not too different from the way others absorbed unspoken messages about death and dying.

This subject – children and how they learn about death – came into focus for me when my husband, Alan, invited his granddaughters to attend his death, which was a tender and peaceful occasion in January 2020. Alan used the provisions of Colorado’s End-of-Life Options Act to end his suffering from multiple system atrophy, a fatal, brutal neurodegenerative illness.

In my memoir, Walking Him Home: Helping My Husband Die with Dignity, I share a scene where Alan’s 12-year-old granddaughter, Olivia, spends a few minutes at Alan’s bedside, crying and embarrassed, listening to Alan’s final words of advice to her as I held her hand.

As I thought about Olivia’s experience, I wondered if her grandpa’s gentle, peaceful death was a better way for a pre-adolescent girl to learn about death than the guessing game I played for years. I thought Olivia handled the whole day with grace and kindness. I know it was excruciatingly hard for her. But ultimately, I can’t help but think that it was better way to learn the facts of life and the corresponding facts of death: Every living thing also dies, no matter how much we wish otherwise. And it can be a warm and love-filled occasion.

On the first anniversary of Alan’s death, his daughters, his granddaughters and his third wife (that’s me), met at a nearby park. The sun was shining, and it was a good spot to sprinkle a few ashes in the shadow of the majestic Rockies, and it was a good place to gather during the height of the Covid epidemic. We shared our favorite memories and told stories about Alan. We laughed and cried. All of us — from Alan’s youngest granddaughter, who was 8 at the time, to me, teetering precariously on the brink of 70 – experienced Alan’s death through different lenses. We all loved him dearly, but we each witnessed his death from a slightly different perspective. Our informal ceremony gave us, the people Alan loved most, a chance to connect and celebrate his humor, his kindness and his big, big heart.

Before we left the park, I asked Olivia, who was now 13 and looking less like an embarrassed child and more like a sassy teenager, if she remembered the advice her grandpa had given her the day he died. And she repeated his words back to me almost word for word the way I remembered them,

You don’t need to remind me that using medical aid in dying is not the only way to die with dignity. Using medical aid in dying worked well for Alan because we all knew in advance exactly when his death was scheduled, which gave us each a chance to prepare for it in our own ways. As time grew short, we said the things that needed saying. If we wanted to, we could practice in front of a mirror saying, “I’m sorry, please forgive me for being a bratty teenager.” We had time to paint a special picture that included all the members of our family and that communicated “thank you for being an important part of my life.” We had time to find just the right moment to whisper, “I will hold you in my heart forever.”

In Alan’s case, it was a blessing to him that Olivia was there to say her final good-byes in person, and it was a blessing for Olivia to be able to carry her grandpa’s advice in the pocket of her heart – probably for the rest of her life.

I hope all of us have similar opportunities as our lives draw to a close.

My benediction to you is this:

Live well, find your happy, and die the death you envision for yourself. Peace be with you.



How and when did you learn about death? If you are a parent, how did you teach your children about death? Please share your story, and your comments and questions using the comments box below.