It can be difficult and scary to talk about death as adults, so having to do so with our kids can cause us to freeze up and shut down. But by being open and honest about death, an inevitable part of life, we lay the groundwork our children need to develop the tools to process loss and work through feelings of grief and pain.
Here to help us unpack our own anxiety, so we may break cycles of avoidance and fear, is death doula Heather Hogan.
If you’ve never heard of a death doula, don’t worry, we’ll kick off our conversation talking about what exactly that is. Then we’ll get into the importance of introducing the concept of death to our children early in life, strategies to avoid projecting your own feelings and fears onto them, developmentally appropriate resources and books you can use to introduce these concepts, and more.
We wonder how to talk to our little people about it when it’s present. And so we actually beget their suffering by not talking to them about it. The same thing that we struggle with we’re giving to our younger generations, because we, as adults, are afraid to explore the conversation.
Dr. Sarah (00:00:21):
Death is what gives meaning to life. Yet it’s something we often avoid talking about out of fear or discomfort, but no matter how much we try to avoid the subject, we will all have to face loss, grief, and pain at some point in our lives. Unfortunately, this avoidance either personally, or as a society can communicate to our children that this isn’t safe. That talking about death is something we don’t believe they can handle. And as a result, they may be left alone to have to figure out how to process their feelings or fill in the blanks. Here to help end the stigma surrounding the topic of death and help you make peace with the inevitable is Heather Hogan. Heather is a dear friend of mine, and she is a Brooklyn based life coach, death doula, and psychedelic integration counselor. Her work uses a mindful approach to moments of transition and focuses on deepening our connection to ourselves and others. As we approach things unknown. If you feel anxious about death, I encourage you to take this opportunity to practice tolerating that discomfort and know that this is a safe place to do so it’s only through these tough conversations and an openness that we can begin to facilitate and creating an environment in which our children may grow to become comfortable with some of life’s most challenging parts.
Hi, I’m Dr. Sarah Bren, a clinical psychologist and mom of two. In this podcast. I’ve taken all of my clinical experience, current research on brain science and child psychology and the insights I’ve gained on my own parenting journey and distilled everything down into easy to understand and actionable parenting insights. So you can tune out the noise and tune into your own authentic parenting voice with confidence and calm. This is Securely Attached.
So today is a really exciting episode for me because we have someone on the podcast today who who’s a very dear friend of mine and whose work. I am always been lucky enough to get to like witness the, the evolution of. And so I’m thrilled that we have someone on today to talk to us about like a really important topic that no one really likes to talk about. And you talk about it so beautifully and make it feel, not scary at all. So Heather Hogan, thank you so much for being on the show today.
Yeah. Thanks for having me. I’m excited.
Dr. Sarah (00:02:51):
So you are among many other things. You are a death doula. Can you, can you tell us a little bit about what that is and then maybe how you got into this work?
Yeah. so death doulaship, I think can be a lot of different things. It’s a little bit less definable than say, like birth doulas, right? That we have an idea of where that action lives. Because as a society, we have a very avoidant and strained relationship with the concept of death and dying. I think death doulaship has this opportunity to be many different things. So as a death doula, by rule, we don’t do any medical procedures, right? So you have someone say hospice nurses, home, healthcare aids that come in to do stuff. We do not administer medications. We don’t do anything that involves like physical care in that particular way. Mostly because a lot of people who do death doulaship are not trained in the medical background. And we are valuable in many different ways. We can come in as a flow between support, meaning that if someone has at home hospice care, you have a series of nurses and chaplains and doctors and therapists that are coming in to do work and death doulas can work in the spaces in between.
So the work that I might do when I’m in the home of someone who is in their final months and weeks I might come in and just make lunch for them and their caretaker, or do the dishes, or do the laundry or tidy up. Or I might sit and have conversations with the person who is now in this transitional stage of their life. As their care caretaker takes a break so often where there’re not only for the person who is in transition, but we’re there for their care team as well. And it’s just another layer of support because at the end of life, we’re often in this space, it’s a suddenly conscious reflection of what the beginning of our lives were like, where when you’re a baby, you need your community to be taking care of you. And at the end of your life, you need something similar.
We’re just a lot more aware of the levels of support that we need. So death doulas come in in that way. We can be there to sit visual in the, the dying hours in the act of dying state. We can sit at the bedside and help direct the family. Cause a lot of people aren’t comfortable used to those spaces so we can help educate lead by example before and during death. And then after death, you might have death doulas who also perform services like washing the body, preparing a body for a home funeral. Really, I mean, it’s, it’s, it’s so open. It’s really hard to put into a container, but we come in, we have conversations. We assess the need. And from there based on our own individual skill sets and the community that we as death workers have we bring in the strength and support that families need.
Dr. Sarah (00:05:52):
It’s amazing because this idea that, you know, people in this audience probably have heard of birth doulas, right? If you’re listening to this podcast, chances are you’re a parent chances are, if you’re a parent in this culture that a birth doula is something that is at least been, or potentially something you’ve heard of. And very many of you probably have worked with a birth doula. And there’s a lot of ying and yang, I might say to like the work that you do. And I’m wondering if that’s a helpful context to think about some of this.
I mean, personally, I really think it is because I haven’t had the luck of being able to be in the room when someone is being born. My closest experience was when my niece was born and I was able to walk into the room, you know, 10 minutes after when Maeve was born. It was interesting. I was actually standing at the door, knocking on the door to tell my sister that I had just arrived in this blizzard. And I hear her go just a minute. And I heard the baby cry and I found out minutes later that that had actually been her first cry that I happened to hear at the door. Oh, wow. So like that’s the closest I’ve been, I’ve been at the bedside with now. I mean, in the weeks leading up to someone’s dying with seven or eight different people, and I’ve been in the room with four different people in their last moments.
So you find when you do this work, being with someone in the moments of their last breath is very similar to being with someone in the moments of their first, because you are standing at the same threshold of existence. And there is something that is when someone is in labor, you cannot take your eyes away because it is like this profound, amazing otherworldly, unbelievably natural experience. And it’s very similar to being in a death space when someone is dying, death, galvanizes your attention, and you cannot be anywhere else, but there in that moment. And that’s why I think it’s so important that we talk about death because, you know, life we consider, oh, it’s so joyful and it’s so special and the promise of a new baby and what that brings and what that means about our future and the aversion that we have to death is that the future dies away that the future is no longer there.
and so when we start to examine the relationship that life and death have, we realize that talking about dying is invariably talking about living. And when we talk about living, we talk about how to increase the quality of that and the intensity and the, you know, I don’t know, to make more joy in the moments that we have it to be present. And nothing makes that more apparent than when a new baby comes into the world. And in the moments when you know that you’re going to lose someone, life is very bright in those moments. Yeah. And I think it’s so cool when we start to recognize that that same level of brightness, there’s a different flavor to it, but that same level of brightness of existence and the insanity and the amazing thing that it is to exist at all is present in those last breaths. Just the same as it is the first.
Dr. Sarah (00:09:10):
Yeah, God, I’ve like chills all over my body, hearing you talk about this. And it’s like, it’s emotional. Like it’s emotional even to think about it. And, you know, chances are, we all have had somebody who’s who we’ve lost. Some of us have lost a lot more than just one person or some people have had losses that like profoundly shake their world, that it never comes back fully together. And I think a lot of people don’t know how to fully process that or move out of it or from it.
Yeah. I mean, look, I started losing people very early in my life. So the first like death that I was conscious of was when I was in fifth grade, my uncle Steve died and I was just sort of notified that he died. Then we were at the viewing and that was the first time that I ever saw a body in a casket. It was really bizarre. He had makeup on, he never wore makeup in his daily life. So I was like, well, this seems strange. And my cousin, who’s my age and she and I are very close. Who’s her, her dad. And she said, you know, you can touch him if you want to. And I was like, you know, I don’t need to do that. I don’t think that that’s something I need. And she took my hand and put it in his hair, like ran my fingers through his hair.
And it’s something, it’s a very core memory. I remember that. And I remember it being so scary and I remember also being so surprised at how soft his hair was. And and then when I was 14, my stepdad was diagnosed with lung cancer and he died when I was 16. And those last five months or so he was at home with hospice care. And when you have home hospice care it’s not like being in a hospital. You have at your request, there will be a nurse that will come by maybe once a day every other day, there’s someone who will come by and do you know, clothes changing and bathing and stuff for your loved one? The doctors generally aren’t coming by they’re on the phone. So they get updates from the nurses every day, but most of the care is happening with the family.
So when my stepdad was dying, it was very, very hands on. And you know, at 16, those are really formative years. It’s a very formative time in your life. There’s this, your whole world is expanding socially. And then you have this unbelievably big thing that’s happening at home. That’s impossible to share with people. You can’t really share the gravity of what that situation is because you cannot wrap your head around it in that moment. And I was so grateful for the hospice team then, because they were very patient. They, there was one nurse in particular that tried to be very clear with me. What was going on. Sometimes when people are getting close to death, particularly if it’s something like a cancer death, it’s a bit long and slow. As people are rounding the corner towards the end, they will do this thing.
That’s called the rally where your person who has been sickened down for quite some time will suddenly be bright astute. They are laughing, they’re up talking. They have all of this energy and you’re like, oh man, they’re just really coming back from the brink. And then within 24, 48 hours, they slip into a coma and they’re gone. And this, my stepdad had gone through this moment. Johnny had gone through this moment and I was like, oh yeah, this is great. And the nurse was like, so I wanna give you a heads up. It was a Friday afternoon. It’s Friday, May 12th, 2000. She said, I want to let you know about this process, cuz this is what we’re seeing. So enjoy this time, but understand that he’s not coming back from where he was. And I remember being really angry. And I remember being like, she has no idea what she’s talking about. She doesn’t know him. This is very clearly who he is. He’s coming back. I can see it. And by 7:00 AM Saturday morning on May 13th, 2000, he died. And I had such gratitude for this woman who really tried to invite me into the reality of what was happening. And she wasn’t doing it to take away my hope. She wasn’t doing it to scare me. She was doing it to prepare me for what was coming and what an unbelievable gift that was. And I remember thinking as a teenager, this has to mean something. This has to mean something. It can’t have, a protector, a caretaker, someone who loves you feel like they fall off the face of the earth and have it mean nothing for the rest of your life. And because I had been in that space because I had experienced death in its actual fashion as it happened, I wasn’t afraid to be with it after that. And so I kept finding myself by default in the room with it.
My grandmother died. I was there with her. After I was married, my mother-in-law died and I was there with her and it just subsequently many, many, many people. So as much as people might perceive that that is a traumatic experience as there is, it is traumatizing when you don’t know what to expect. It was also a moment in my life that gave me a very clear perspective on what it means to live and what it means to care for members of your community. And to recognize that death in this way is not contagious. So there is nothing fearful about being in the room with it. And it, that is an unbelievable privilege to be in the space when someone’s making that transition. And I think a lot of the trauma in that situation came because I was unprepared because we didn’t talk about it.
Dr. Sarah (00:15:11):
He was diagnosed. My mom, I remember I was so angry because they, my parents were having these conversations and like kids observe, you know, what’s going on. Like whether you’re a verbal kid at this point, whether you’re aware or not, you know, you feel it, you sense what’s going on. And I remember being so angry because I could tell that something was happening and nobody would tell me. And I finally sat ’em both down. And I was like, you have to tell me what’s going on. And at this point, so I was 14. I was really angry. When I found out I was angry that they didn’t tell me. And then my mom asked me what I thought. And I said, I think that he has cancer and he’s going to die. And she was so angry that I said that he was gonna die. And he was in the beginning stages of treatment, but you sense it coming. And that was the last conversation we ever had about it. So there was no, they, they didn’t make any preparation. He died. And they went, I was left home with his body, and my mom and my sister and my brother went to the funeral home to make plans. This man had been dying at home with hospice for five months. And it wasn’t until he stopped breathing that somebody thought, oh, we should go and have a conversation about what this looks like.
Dr. Sarah (00:16:39):
Right. That’s so wild. And, and, and probably incredibly common because like we were talking about at the beginning of this, of this conversation, like it’s hard to talk about. And so, and it’s scary. And so we don’t, we want to turn away, we want to avoid it. We want to deny that it’s happening. Maybe at least on the inside. And so we maybe do delay or avoid or straight up just deny.
And especially, I think that for a lot of people, look, there are many layers that play into that. There’s the original avoidance, right? Like we’re a living being, that’s like not super stoked about not existing. Our brains can’t handle that. This is why the ego is what it is like. It’s like, let’s just not even think about that. But then we have that in a larger scale in the culture there’s death, denial, everywhere. This is why the beauty industry is a billion dollar industry. All of the time is because we are in denial of aging and denial of aging is denial of death. And we like to cloak it in all of these things and we tuck it away. We put elderly people in nursing homes so that they’re not in our homes wasting away, because we don’t wanna know and see beyond the fact that we can’t handle the daily responsibility that it is right.
But it’s hard to see and it’s hard to feel. So there’s the inner culture, there’s the external culture. And because it is that way, we also have a lack of language around it. What I have found is that a majority of my death work is not sitting vigil. Like I thought it would be, it’s not sitting at the bedside and adoring bodies with flowers and being like, Hey, it’s okay to touch this person. Who’s no longer inhabiting their form. This is really what I thought this work would be. And it’s turning out to be exactly what we’re doing now, which is death education, opening the conversation. And I have not had anyone who has turned away from asking questions when I tell them what I do.
Dr. Sarah (00:18:40):
It’s a million questions.
Dr. Sarah (00:18:43):
And we need that space so badly. And I think that that’s one of the failures of our culture is that it is death is so present that we have entire industries built to put up walls so that we cannot view it.
Dr. Sarah (00:18:58):
And then we wonder how to talk to our little people about it when it’s present. And so we actually beget their suffering by not talking to them about it. The same thing that we struggle with, we’re giving to our younger generations, because we, as adults are afraid to explore the conversation.
Dr. Sarah (00:19:20):
You bring up such an important key point here, which is like, kind of breaking the cycle, right. We’ve had this intergenerational transmission of fear around death trauma around it. We don’t talk about it. We don’t have the, so we don’t have the, the language it’s like. So one generation does not pass down to the next generation. Any language, any safety, any, you know, connection around it. So how it sounds like the work you’re doing is literally breaking that cycle by, by definition. But I think too, like if you are a parent and you want to make death part of life, and I think it’s important, it’s not about bringing it in everywhere, but it’s about not building up the walls. Right. Not making it so that when death inevitably shows up in our lives, cuz it will. And it does that our children perhaps have a framework for it, a language around it, a shared sense of safety around it.
Because another thing that you said that, you know, really struck me was I’m obviously the things that you have experienced were certainly upsetting and traumatizing and also did not traumatize you as a human being. Right? The, the, the thing is, and this is really important. What we know about, you know, scary and difficult and painful experiences. They’re not guaranteed to be traumatizing. What makes something trauma really? Isn’t what happens to us. It’s how we internalize what happened to us in our bodies, in our narratives, in our perceptions of it, the stories we tell ourselves about what happened to us, how we make sense of what happened to us or how we don’t make sense or unable to make sense of what happened to us. And so, you know, this is like the essence of resilience, right? The difference between trauma and resilience is being able to have an, an explanation for things that make sense in our bodies, not just intellectually, but like truly authentically makes sense in every part of ourselves. It doesn’t mean that it has to like make sense from like a, you know, rational place cause very rarely ever will. Right. Does it make sense that your stepfather went through this horrible experience? Like no, it’s not and that never will, but your ability to make sense of what you experienced during that process probably predicted your resilience and your capacity to, you know, build this entire identity. That’s probably keeps you very grounded and whole
Yeah. I mean, I think so. I, I love the the through line there of the embodiment of this kind of understanding, right? Because culturally, we’ve also created this interception between mind and body. And even though like the wellness community is like mind, body, spirit, mind, body connection. A lot of it am I allowed to swear on this?
Dr. Sarah (00:22:28):
Yeah. Go right ahead.
Cause a lot of the wellness stuff that we talk about is such superficial bullshit because the wellness work is laborious. It takes time, it takes dedication. It takes intention to really make those differences, the wellness around the fact that you will be a dying being doesn’t happen because you’re in a flower filled bubble bath, right? Like you’re not gonna feel better about dying when you’re sitting. Maybe it’s a nice environment to think about it, but understanding the embodiment when we’re talking about children at developmental ages, right? There’s only a certain level of cognitive capacity. They have to take something like death that for most of us, even as adults still feels like a concept and to bring it into a reality and to make it a reality that is not threatening.
Dr. Sarah (00:23:19):
Right. So the embodiment part is really important. And I say that because even as adults, we experience grief in our bodies for anyone who has ever gone through the loss of a relationship let’s set death aside and let’s say romantic partnership that has ended you feel it. Your heart hurts. You feel that. And when we start to consider loss and death and grief, it is happening on a physical level, just as much as it’s happening in a mental and emotional way. And the body is a really great tool to begin to process those things. Right. SoI’ll think about like interesting ways that you can bring death up with kids. It’s fun to bring it up with them when death isn’t present. Let’s clarify that. Like if we can start to make this a conversation that parents are having with kids in general, as something that’s happening outside of the acute emotional moment of the actual loss of someone you’re laying a better ground for resilience. Yes. Right. So this is when you’re out for a walk with your kids, whether it’s in the neighborhood or in your own backyard point out things that are dead, why is this leaf brown and this leaf isn’t, you know, why is this plant doing this thing? Or look, there’s a dead baby bird. Most children will not react to visible death with horror and despair.
Dr. Sarah (00:24:53):
No, this is an interesting point because we often project our own learned adult fears. Our trauma responses are avoidance, our, you know, catastrophizing, whatever it is, all the stuff that we’ve built up over our lives that keep us averse to death. We project that onto our children, you know, and that’s, that’s our stuff, you know, a young child who maybe hasn’t even been exposed to the concept of death, doesn’t have our cultural associations with it. And so when you see a baby bird that has died, fallen outta the nest is laying on the ground. Our child may feel genuine sadness about that. But not fear.
Absolutely. And I think what you’ll find that most of the time kids are experiencing around it is curiosity. And that like what a magical superpower children have with the fact that they just seem to be innately curious about the world in general, like kids shows up in your life and you suddenly are seeing the world in a way that you either haven’t ever seen it, or haven’t seen it in a long time, fresh eyeballs lent to you by this very tiny person. They’re very curious about everything. And curiosity is one of the best tools that anyone of any age has when it comes to inviting yourself into a safe feeling, safe in a conversation about death and dying. Cuz curiosity is both a flashlight and a shield in many ways. And those are the tools that we give our kids. So, you know, don’t be afraid to point that out to them or if they notice like they’re very close to the ground and they’re often looking there, they’ll see dead stuff and they’ll point it out to you. And instead of being like, eh, don’t touch it. Cause we wanna say death is bad and scary and disease ridden. Don’t touch it, just get down on their level and say, what do you see? Ask them what they notice because it starts to also break it down into those elements of things that just are things are without the contextualizing. People are often really afraid to use. I mean, and this is again, any age, use the words dead death dying died feels heavy so we use all of these euphemisms passed away, passed on, you know, they’re sleeping and they’re never gonna wake up, which like way to terrify your kid about sleep like death and sleep are not the same thing. Let’s not conflate them because it can cause bigger issues.
Dr. Sarah (00:27:22):
So just practicing curiosity with them and asking them questions. What do you feel? What do you feel when you look at that? You know, and they might still, if they’re at an age where they can only really give you the observant aspect, I feel like it looks like this rather than their emotional space, but when we’re with kids, it’s actually less about what we tell them, I think, than it is about what we ask them first. What do you see? What do you know? What do you feel? What do you want to know about what’s happening here? They’re so they’re so good. They’re like the best teachers in the world.
Dr. Sarah (00:28:07):
I mean a hundred thousand percent like it’s so, I mean, honestly that’s sort of my model for everything with my kids. I mean, I don’t follow it all the time. Certainly do my fair share of like preaching to them. And then I catch myself and I’m like, damn, wait, hold on. Let’s switch roles. What do you see and think and wanna know about cuz that I just sort of in general with parenting kind of feel like my job is not the person that fills up their empty vessel. I’m not the teacher, I’m the detective. My job is to figure out who are these people that are totally fully themselves already. And I just need to get to know them. And I think death is a very, like conversations about death, like asking them to bring us into their inner world versus projecting all kinds of our inner worlds onto them.
Like an interesting thing to ask kids, right. Is like when they notice, because okay. I don’t have, have you you’ve been with dead bodies before? Yes, no.
Dr. Sarah (00:29:18):
I’ve let me think about that. Well, you know my cat, Tom, I met him. I got to see him after I wasn’t there when he died, which was really, really hard for me. But it’s mostly been pets actually. Not, I mean, I’ve had loss, but not, I’ve never been able to be with the body in sort of in the moment or even really like post.
I’s an interesting thing, right? Like with Tom.
Dr. Sarah (00:29:50):
Who, by the way, for those of you who do not know who Tom is. Tom was the most incredible cat second maybe to Heather’s cat Ertha. But this cat was the love of my life before I, you know, had human relationships.
He was a real hero. That guy.
Dr. Sarah (00:30:12):
He was a special, special cat that cat had a special li specialness to him.
But like, I mean, pets are amazing, right? Because we have this relationship with them that even though we talk to them, they generally don’t talk back. We have this wordless existence with them. That is an unbelievable connection. And you’re very aware, keenly aware of the spirit that inhabits that little being like that, you know, they’re in there. And being with them when they die. And afterwards, I mean, even though let me, I’ll ask you this, when you saw Tom’s body, did you see Tom there?
Dr. Sarah (00:30:53):
So a great question to ask kids, where do you think we go? And they will tell you often the most hopeful, beautiful thing. And like I I’m of the belief that I think they’ve come from that place already. They’re just newly arrived from that same place that we go, you know? So like to me it always feels like they have a much better awareness and they’re not afraid because they’re like, oh man, it’s beautiful. There don’t even worry about it. No problem. But it’s, you know, when you, when you have the, the opportunity to, to be with a body that is now vacant of the being that you believe inhabited it.
You see that the one that you love is no longer there. You see it as this. I mean, I, the word vessel I think is very loaded in some ways, but it is a vessel. It is something that carries the, the essence of the people and the beings that we know. And I think it’s really powerful for most people to be able to see the body of their loved one, people will avoid it because we have all of these cultural myths about death that bring our anxiety up to a level that says I can’t handle that.
More often than not people of all ages integrate death better when they’ve had the opportunity to be with a body, to see that the person that they love is no longer there, there. And you know, it’s, it’s the difference between being with someone when they’re in their dying process and you see the sort of slow evolution, you’re still not with them in their death, versus someone dies in a car accident and you never see them again. There’s a difference in being able to integrate that into your now new reality of that person no longer existing. And so often, you know, it’s very common that people won’t let children attend viewings. Won’t let children see the body for the fear that it will traumatize them. But what is more traumatizing than having someone that you love who’s in your life disappear?
Dr. Sarah (00:33:10):
Yes. I think that’s so powerful and profound. And I think there are ways, again, like the, the concept of projection keeps coming up for me, cuz I know that from a parental standpoint, we are so afraid of our children experiencing something that will scar them and our fear that they may be in some way, emotionally harmed by an experience seeps into the potential of that experience to in fact be traumatizing so our energetic response, our fear, our, all the stuff that we bring into the space after someone has passed away or has died, it’s it’s tangible. And we and, it’s there. Like it’s not to say, don’t do it. You can’t not do it. You are going to have these feelings and these worries and these fears. But I think like you were saying, like if we live a life with our children outside of the moment of death, you know, entering and coming and going and all that we can lay the groundwork for our children to not, and for ourselves to trust that our children can handle something like this. Right. It’s a lot of trust here. And a lot of being able to see your child as a capable human being who can, who can, who can tolerate experiencing the truth of this part of life.
And what you’re also doing by inviting them into that conversation is helping them understand that they can do that, right? Yeah. You’re inviting them into the truth that they can do that because as parents you’re, you know, you are their reality, you are their model for what things are and mean. And when you can reflect back to them, that wholeness, you can reflect back to them that strength. And I say that word, not meaning the cultural model of strength of like stoicism. We don’t cry. We don’t get scared. We don’t. But the strength of sitting with things, being uncomfortable, things, being sad, things, being hard. And knowing that, that blue sky awareness that there is when the clouds roll in, the clouds are there and behind that is always the truth that everything is okay, you are okay, you are safe. This thing has changed.
I think that’s like, like the biggest reason why I advocate for healthy well people to consider their death daily. There’s a value in thinking about it once a day, every day, because it increases your gratitude for the fact that you get to live. It all that even when there’s a difficult situation, it helps highlight the fact that people that you love are supporting you through that difficult time or a hard day. And then you come home and you have a warm chocolate chip cookie with your kids. And you’re like, man, God chocolate chip cookies are so good. Oh, it’s so good to be alive in this moment. Just brings these tiny moments of beauty in life and makes them a little bit larger and makes them a little bit brighter because we’re willing to talk about it. And so talking about this work, I, or doing this work individually, I think it’s a gift to everyone around you.
Not only does it help you do the practical things, like create a will and prepare for yourself as an individual and as a parent, because like, it’s not just about preparing kids when they’re young, it helps to have books in their library already that they can just pick up, you know, as much as they’re reading the books about, you know, you know, whatever turtle or fish is doing this thing, you know, there should also be a book about living and dying because it, it can just be part of their culture and part of their it can be in their zeitgeist from the very beginning. Yeah. But part of being a parent is not only protecting your kids and preparing your kids in this foundational way. But when you, as an individual parent, do the work with exploring what your relationship is to death and dying, it sets you up to be able to do the practical things.
Your will, your advanced directive, you know, who takes care of your children, should something happen now, not when they’re adults, cuz we like to live in this death denial. The assumption is that we will all live long lives, will die, you know, from illness or old age. And we’re not always afforded that luck really. And so preparing your will, your advanced directive, talking to your community, your support, people, other family members, friends, and as your children get older, talking with them about your plans is the final act of parenting you get to do for your kids, whether it’s when they are young or whether it’s when they’re in their fifties. It’s the final act of loving your kids of making sure that those conversations have been had. All of the paperwork is done. That’s you, you allow your kids not to have to be with the bureaucracy of your death. You allow them to be with you and to be with their grief. They get, get to be with the process that you’ve prepared them for from the time that they were very young by talking to them about the leaves falling off the trees and the bird that’s fallen on the ground. It becomes the seed that then in a by extension becomes the last gift that you ever give them.
Dr. Sarah (00:38:52):
Yeah. And I think that’s such an important and beautiful like picture that you paint. Right. And it doesn’t, and it also means that we do this self work kind of behind the scenes, from what we do with our children and then age appropriate levels of introducing these concepts. Like you’re not sitting down with your two year old being like, I’m gonna tell you about my will. You know, you know, cuz mommy’s gonna die one day. That’s not age appropriate. Right. But you’re doing that work on the outside on your side. But maybe with your two year old, you’re talking about the life and death of plants and animals. You’re helping, if you get a pet introducing this concept that this pet has a shorter lifespan than humans. And so we have to understand that if we want to get a family dog, we have to understand that family dogs tend to live about X number of years.
And so we want our kids to know if they’re getting a fish, it’s gonna be about a year, maybe less. So this is like introductory animals to come into our life that we know have lifespans. Like when I was a little kid, we had hamsters, all those hamsters died because hamsters die and we had to figure out what to do about that. And I don’t just mean logistically, but emotionally. And it was very sad and I was like six. Yeah. And so we have conversations, age appropriate ones where we introduce these concepts and we follow their lead too. Like, and we’re mindful of not projecting our fears that they can’t handle this, not just our fears that this is going to be hard, cuz yeah, it will be hard. But if we believe our kids could do hard things and we reflect that reality to them in the way that we show up and talk about hard things.
We are implicitly downloading data into their brains, that they are capable of handling hard stuff. And this is the difference between trauma and resilience, right? The belief that I can survive, this, that, that I have a framework for understanding it. I can make meaning out of it. We talk about it. We don’t keep secrets and hide things. And listen, I say all this knowing very full well that like parents might listen to this being like, oh no, I’ve done those things. I’ve kept the secret. I’ve tried to, I’ve tried to shield. I’ve tried to protect. Can I undo that? Do you have any thoughts about like where do you start over perhaps in that process of talking unveiling it a little bit.
I mean, I think all of it, it, it will always start for everyone, kids or no kids. It always starts with your internal process. Right? So I do death coaching work. So working with perfectly healthy individuals who are afraid about death or curious about death and don’t know where to go for answers, who have questions, you know, it’s those things that like you Google late at night where you’re like, what does death? And then there’s like a dropdown bar of whatever nightmare has come up on Google. So I work with people to have those conversations. And it’s great. You find that like a lot of people think they don’t wanna talk about it, but they need to. So yeah, it starts by just being willing to have the conversation with your own peers as an adult and to use that, you know, flashlight and shield of curiosity to find out where you actually are with your relationship with death.
One of the things that I really love to do is to challenge, where have I attached myself to a cultural belief about death that might not be true, right? Like what do I believe? Do I actually believe that thing? Because we’ll, you know, like those elevator pitches where you think, you know who you are, I’m this, this or that. And then once you get down to it, we find that we’re all far more complex than just our identity as you know, mothers or therapists, or, you know, like whatever titles we give ourselves, there’s always this complexity underneath. And so to dilute ourselves into thinking that our beliefs are not complex, that they’re clear is the first game to play with ourselves.
Dr. Sarah (00:43:16):
I love that.
And then I think you just practice honesty with your kids again, developmentally aged appropriate honesty with them of, you know, I didn’t know how to talk to you about this. Let’s try it. So I’ll, I’ll give you an example. Years and years and years ago I was dating somebody. We went to his family trip to the outer banks and he had three year old twin nieces, beautiful, lovely girls. The first time I’m hanging out with them, we’re out on the beach and we’re walking around and you know, we’re picking up shells and we’re, you know, picking up all the little baby clams that are coming in on the shore and digging around and all of this stuff. And then I look over and one of the girls goes, Heather, look at this cool shell. And I go over and it’s a dead crab.
And I immediately panicked because I wasn’t this time doing this work. I hadn’t done this yet. I hadn’t been around kids. I hadn’t talked to them about death. And I was like, oh God, I don’t know what to do. I should not say that it is dead. Should I say that it’s dead? Do they know that things die? Like rapid fire, these questions come up and I go, okay, don’t touch it. And they were like, okay. And I was like, let’s look at it from here. And we looked at it and I was like, okay. I said, so I think you might be sunbathing. Cause it was like on its back when its arms out. And I was like, so let’s not. And they were like, okay, no questions. They had no issue with it. And then I talked to their mom after I was like, I’m sorry.
I didn’t know if I was supposed to say something. And I’ve reflected on that moment so much because if I had had the tools then that I have, now we could have had a very pleasant conversation about death right there, and then moved right back on to picking up shells. And it would’ve been a non-issue. So I think as parents that allowing yourself to be fallible in the way that you protect your children and let them know that you are of like, I had no idea how to talk to you about this and that’s good at any age. And you said like, we’ll take kids. We take their guidance on stuff, cuz they’ll let you know.
In February of 2020, my sister’s mother-in-law was dying. And I was there. And at the time my nieces were four and six and the oldest one Maeve wanted nothing to do with this experience. Carol, who was dying was in a hospital bed in the basement, in this beautiful living room, a lovely warm space where the family had hung out and played, you know? And we would tell me if you should come downstairs and they called Tuggi, we’re like, you should spend some time with, with Tuggi. But the experience was a little bit scary for her toy was not as Tuggi had always been. And so she would sort of cross her arms over her chest and go, I don’t want to, I’m gonna stay up here or I wanna go do this. Or she would immediately turn the conversation. She wanted to take you and show you something in her room. She was really avoidant. She didn’t want to be around it. Nulah who was four years old would walk right in and shove a chair up next to the hospital bed, climb up on it, get halfway on the bed and rub toy’s shoulder.
And I sat there with her and I said I said, you know, Nulah at this point, Carol was already in a coma. And I said, you can talk to toy. She can hear you, but she’s probably not gonna say anything back because her body’s starting to get very tired and she doesn’t have the energy. You, when you get really, really tired and she just sat there rubbing Carol’s shoulder. And she said, hi, Tuggi, it’s me. Nulah. As if she were on the phone with her. And then touched her and just said, you look so pretty, which was all Carol ever wanted to hear in her life was how beautiful she was. And Nulah at four years old turned to me and she said, doesn’t she look so pretty. And I said she does. And she sat there and twirled her hair and just sat with her grandmother who was in an unconscious state of dying. She Carol died about 15 hours later and Nulah would periodically just come back in, I’d sit in the chair and Nulah would stand next to the bed and lean against it. And just proper little hand up and just pat toy’s hand while she was talking to me about something else, completely unfazed. Yeah. Where may have had had no interest in being there. And we just allowed her to make those choices for herself.
Dr. Sarah (00:47:43):
Carol died in the middle of the night. She died four minutes to midnight. And the question was, do we keep her body here and let the girls say goodbye in the morning, or do we call hospice now and have them remove the body now? And again, this was before I had done this training and I’m perfectly fine and comfortable being around bodies. Members of my family were not so much. So, the decision was made. Hospice came and took her away. And it was very surprising for the kids because when they went to bed, their grandmother was yes, in an unconscious state, but she was asleep in her bed, in her space downstairs. And when they came down in the morning, it was an empty bed that had been stripped of linens. And I think that the integration might have been different.
Had they had an opportunity to come down and give her flowers because there was no, there was a funeral service, but she had been cremated. So it was like, that transition was different for them. But she died. And the following day, we went out as a family, to old town, Alexandria, just walking around and it’s a Saturday, it’s busy, you know, Friday. And Nulah and I were walking and we’re looking at people on the street and there’s bands playing and she just takes my hand and she goes, Aunt Heather, yes Nulah. She said, Tuggi died. I said, she did die. She goes, yeah. I said, how do you feel about that? She said, I’m sad. I said, yeah. She said, I love her. I said, I know you do. I loved her too. And then we were just walking for a second and then she goes, I want some pizza. And it was like, just like that. She was able to share, she was able to tell me where she was with it. She brought it back up when she needed to talk about it. You make yourself available. Easy as that.
Dr. Sarah (00:49:50):
Yeah. And it’s interesting too, because I think it’s really important, you know, it just happened to be so, but it’s important to point out the difference between Maeve and Nulah. Because both are okay and both make sense and neither are dangerous and neither are bad and neither are right. And so it’s like if we have a child who we are inviting into this process, who says, I don’t want this, I’m not here for that. I’m not ready for that. We really wanna follow their lead. And we have a child who’s like two feet in just sitting on grandma’s lap as she passes away. You know, we don’t wanna be scared about that either. And like, you know, we wanna be, we wanna follow that child’s lead and trust that they’re doing what they are comfortable doing and give them information as they go.
Right. We don’t wanna let them get so far ahead of us that we can’t guide them. But we want like, that’s that, you know, that hospice nurse that was preparing you for your stepfather’s death, right? You need a guide. It doesn’t have to be a death doula. It’s wonderful if it is, but it can be apparent. Right? We need to be able to say, Hey, this is what’s coming. Let me help you be ready for this. Yeah. But for the Maueve’s out there who are, you know, who are like, I, I’m not ready to go here. That’s so, okay. And it’s also not a sign that they can’t handle death.
Correct. What they’re showing you is, is where they are and the importance of respecting that and not directing that. I think as, as an adult in their life, in any way, and this like this extends to their adult community, because people are gonna say, oh, don’t be sad. They’re in a better place. All the bullshit stuff that people tell you when you’re grieving. And as someone who has experienced death and you’re sitting there and you’re like, you know what? You know that someone’s intention. When they say those things is loving, they’re coming from a place. They don’t wanna see you in pain. They wanna offer you something that eases your heart in that moment. And you still feel the absurdity of what they’re saying in that moment. And kids don’t have that awareness. And so it is a gift to, to them to be able to just ask them where they are and let them know that you’re there. And you can check in on that conversation, right? Because grief then happens. And the grief is an entirely different conversation and learning to look for signs of complex grief. You do not have to be a death professional to talk about death and dying. And I think that that’s one of the most, if anybody walks away with anything from this, it is that
Death happens to everyone. Whether it’s your environment or your own, you don’t need a death doula. It is valuable and important to have because we have steeped ourselves in the world of helping people navigate this. And the goal of this is each one teach one. Death has been taken out of our homes in many different ways. Most people die in hospitals and that’s not where they wanna be. If you ask most people where they wanna die, they wanna die at home in their own beds with their loved ones around and culturally, we don’t know how to do that for people. So when we do that work and we’re willing to have these conversations, we start to create a very necessary relationship with death. We don’t outsource it so much anymore. And I mean, kids are masters of doing it. You really are. They’re. So, I mean, they’re really incredible. Like, I, I don’t think that Mave has been detrimentally impacted by the loss of her grandmother. She’s now aware she’s integrated it. She knows that it’s part of life. She just has a composition that doesn’t need, or want to be in that space to be able to embody that awareness where Nola’s like, all right, well, let’s just snuggle right up with it. And that’s what she needs and wants for her process. Right.
Dr. Sarah (00:53:59):
Which is also really important point individual differences. Everybody, you know, we don’t wanna project our own stuff out to our kids, but we also have don’t recognize that all, every single human being in this world is going to have their own unique relationship to these ideas and tolerance for it and temperament and style of how they integrate. So the goal isn’t to make someone integrate the narrative of death. The goal is to trust that someone is inherently capable of integrating death and the story of the death at their own pace in their own way. And that with that trust reduces our anxiety, which is then communicating less anxiety around death in general, more of a sense of safety around death to our children and that communication of safety, that implicit communication of safety is gonna lead to the integration.
Yeah. And I think that when you, you know, if you think about energetically, what happens when you’re anxious is how tight and how oftentimes kind of prickly that energy is. And it telegraphs this I’m inaccessible in this moment. Safety with me in this moment is not available. And so when you can center your own experience around death and dying your very existence becomes an invitation for safety for the people around you. You know, so it’s like, that’s that layer of having done it. And I, a very important point that you made earlier is that there’s no wrong way to do this. Meaning the relationship that we as individuals and therefore children have with death and dying and all of the sort of aspects of it, that there is no wrong way to deal with death. And there is no wrong way to grieve because this idea of some sort of normalcy bell curve around this is such an absurd concept.
There are certainly healthier ways, meaning ways that bring us resiliency and integration that allow us to move on. And that’s the same with any kind of trauma or traumatic experience, but being really mindful about how often we’re also housing judgment about death and dying, which is why that adult individual exploration is really important. What’s a good death. What’s a bad death. What’s good grieving. What’s bad grieving cause culturally we do not have a good conversation around grief, like bereavement loss within many environments is very short. There’s minimal support. If your parent dies, you are expected to be at work no more than two weeks later. And that seems for some people very long, and that is for some people totally fine. And for some people that’s not even remotely enough time to adjust to the reality that this important person in your life is gone.
So there’s a children’s book that recently came out that was reco, that was written by a friend of a friend within the community it’s called Zara’s Big Messy Goodbye by Rebekah Borucki. And it’s an exploration of grief being messy and the okay quality of that, which I think is wildly beneficial. And one of my favorite children’s books to help introduce the concept of death and dying to kids is called The Fall of Freddie The Leaf. The author is Leo Buscaglia.
Dr. Sarah (00:57:38):
And it’s just a life cycle of a leaf from its own perspective.
Dr. Sarah (00:57:45):
Oh wow. I love that.
What it sees, sees its friends die away, feels the seasons change and you get to use that as like here’s a great book and that’s a very gentle way of making it unconsciously part of their zeitgeist.
Dr. Sarah (00:58:02):
Yeah. There’s another book that I often recommend to people to introduce the concept of this without, you know, in a sort of precursor sort of way it’s called Rabbityness. And I have to look up the author. And I love it because it’s this ambiguous. It’s ambiguous loss. So it’s nice because I think we can pro kind of insert different scenarios onto it based on what is happening in our kids’ life or whatever is going on. So it’s like, or perhaps just to talk about it as a more abstract concept. But I think it’s nice cuz it’s sort of a neutral, a neutral kind of book.
Dr. Sarah (00:58:46):
The concept of loss is very present.
I think that’s the other important thing. Like we talk about death because for most of us we’ve been raised with this concept of death being this boogeyman, right. And how often with parent, you know, our parents with kids, helping them see that there’s no monster in the closet or under the bed, you do that moment of like turning on the light because that pile of laundry that looked like a monster is actually just a bunch of clothes, you know? And we get to do that with death. By creating these conversations, we get to normalize it. We get to take away all of the scary, false things about it. But I think that’s so important to recognize too, that grief and loss happen in many different ways. It can be moving out of a childhood home or changing schools or losing a friendship when you’re in your pre-teen years.
You know, those years where those relationships are so intense and so intimate and so personal and something shifts within their social network. And suddenly that’s gone having conversations with them at that age. Because grief is very present there. Heartbreak is present there. Yeah. and so when we teach kids to allow that kind of loss as part of their reality, I think that that’s when we actually are giving them the room to lessen the, the sharpness of the impact. Yeah. Lesson will still be there. They’ll still learn. They’ll still be able to incorporate it, but it might not be something they think about every day because they’ve been given the freedom to talk about it while it’s happening.
Dr. Sarah (01:00:22):
Yeah. A hundred percent. Gosh, this is so such an important conversation. And I’m so grateful that you had it with me cuz I love talking to you about everything life and now also death. If people wanna learn more about the work that you do get in touch with you how can they connect with you?
So I have my website, which is wisdomandsage.com. And there people can sign up for coaching sessions. And they’ll see also that there’s a section there that says integration. It’s because I also do work as a psychedelic integration counselor. So people who have had those profound experiences of touching something, that’s not quite, it doesn’t feel embodied in this reality, helping people make sense of that afterwards. And I share that one because you’ll see it. And two, because it’s the exact same exploration talking about death, talking about these altered states of reality because when we’re grieving, when we’re in a place of loss, we are in an altered state and how do we navigate that? So people can book individual sessions with me there. I’m gonna start creating some community offerings, some workshops around death and dying. So we can do these contemplations together. We can be in community with it. And then it can also email me Heather@wisdomandsage.com or find me on Instagram @wisdomandsage.
Dr. Sarah (01:01:55):
Amazing. And if you do, when you get those community offerings going, send me the info and I will share it out with our community because that’s clearly, as we have discovered today, critical and people need guidance around it. This isn’t, this isn’t easy information to find.
No. And I’m, I’m so excited that that you can, can start to see one once this is in your mind, the conversation about death. I think it’s one of those things where you start to realize that everyone’s talking about it, you know, it’s like the, when you never heard of the cronut and then suddenly that you never didn’t hear about it. Everyone was talking about it. And now it’s gone. It’s exactly that same time. This is happening with death right now that in a post quarantine pandemic era. Many people are in need. Yes. So I’m, it’s my favorite thing to talk about because when we talk about death, we talk about life and what better thing to talk about?
Dr. Sarah (01:02:53):
Yeah, no I’m walking away from this, this conversation. Not certainly not feeling scared or anxious, but feeling really grateful and like really grounded. So clearly there’s a physiological benefit. I believe from having these conversations and no reason why our kids wouldn’t benefit too.
Thank you so much for coming on. I’m so grateful.
Thank you for having me.
Dr. Sarah (01:03:22):This episode just scratched the surface of how parents can approach the topic of death with our children. If you have questions in general about broaching the subject of death or about a specific scenario you found yourself in–maybe how to talk to your child about a pet dying, or what to say when grandma passes away, or how to find the right words for all levels of development and ages, I want to hear from you! Go ahead and email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or DM me on Instagram @drsarahbren. And I will have Heather come back and together we will address your questions for many people. This is not an easy episode to listen to. So you should feel really proud of yourself for making it through. Don’t be a stranger.
I want to hear from you! Send me a topic you want me to cover or a question you want answered on the show!
✨ Send an email to email@example.com
✨ And check out drsarahbren.com for more parenting resources