Saying Goodbye: What Do We Teach Kids about Death?

Shannon Hayes: When we shelter ourselves from the realities of death, what else might we be sacrificing?
Hands Young & Old, photo by Emmanuel Avetta

Photo by Emmanuel Avetta.

The author of Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, Shannon Hayes lives and works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in upstate New York. Click here for more from her blog on life as a radical homemaker.

My grandfather is dying. He is 92, and just before Christmas he came down with pneumonia. His health and awareness have been in steady decline since then, and his doctors have begun preparing us for the end. Uncle Tommy and Aunt Kimmie, who moved in with him a few years ago, have been overseeing his care. They are now assisted by one day nurse, my Aunt Katie, and my dad, who take shifts to make sure Tommy and Kimmie can rest, and to guarantee that Grandpa can stay in his home.

I called my dad two nights ago to ask if I could join him on his shift for Sunday morning. He agreed, warning me that in the last few days, Grandpa had stopped conversing. I asked if he minded if I brought the girls.

Coping with death was an on-farm necessity. But much of our family still preferred to keep it a safe distance from life.

“I don’t know. Maybe we can talk about it later.” With that, the conversation ended.

That was his code for telling me that I had to make the decision.

I thought back over my own experiences with death as a child. My brother and I cared for pets who were making their passages; attempted to save baby birds who’d fallen out of their nests; carried hypothermic lambs into the kitchen on cold winter nights, and worked to resuscitate them until they died in our arms; removed dead chickens from the coop. Coping with death was an on-farm necessity. But much of our family still preferred to keep it a safe distance from life.

I learned this when I was eleven years old, and we faced the loss of my aunt by marriage on my mother’s side, Aunt Judy, whom I adored. In her mid-thirties, after giving birth to twins—her third and fourth children—she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She didn’t have much of an opportunity to fight it, and while the twins were still in diapers, we made trips to the hospital that became her final home.

Kristy Leissle family photo
Returning Grandpa's Love

A family economy that doesn't outsource care—at either end of life.

Well, actually, my mom and dad made trips to the hospital. My brother and I made trips to the waiting room, where we were sheltered from the realities of her illness. My last real memory of Aunt Judy was sitting with her on the couch, maybe one year before her death, holding one of my baby cousins, just after her chemotherapy had begun. I wasn’t in her presence again until she was in a coffin. I didn’t know to say goodbye when I saw her that last time, and I remember feeling deeply confused at her funeral—like I was an interloper among mourners. Somehow, even though I cared about her, this loss wasn’t mine to share. I didn’t dare shed a tear as I watched her coffin lowered into her grave. I didn’t feel entitled.

I thought about all this yesterday morning, as I tried to decide whether to bring my daughters Saoirse and Ula along with me to visit Great Pop Pop (their name for him). Reflexively, conditioned by my own childhood, I assumed it was expected that I’d leave them home with my husband Bob.

But since my daughters were born, I have never visited my grandfather without them. His bright Irish eyes have always lit up upon seeing them, and they adore him. He kept toys in the kitchen for them to play with, and they would sprawl out by his feet while we had tea and talked about my writing, politics, books we’d been reading, the economy, family. Aunt Kimmie would often have cupcakes ready for them, and a craft they could do at the kitchen table. When we left, Saoirse and Ula would scramble up his lap to give him kisses and hugs, and Saoirse would whisper to me as we went out the door, “I really like Great Pop Pop. I think he’s magical.”

Shannon Hayes with her daughter, UlaCan Money Buy Education? 

Shannon Hayes taught her daughter that their family doesn't buy things they can make or grow at home. She then had to wonder: Does that include higher education?

I considered the grown-ups from my own childhood, who had prevented me from seeing my dying Aunt. Why would they have done that? I suspect they wanted me to remember her healthy. Maybe they didn’t want me to be frightened.

These were legitimate reasons. But I don’t think they were effective. I remember only a glimpse of a bed sheet as I was ushered past her hospital room, and my experience of deep fear about death—which, at the time, I could only conclude was so horrid, I was not even allowed to witness its aura, or to say goodbye.

There is so much about my grandfather’s death that I find deeply beautiful. I am thankful that my family is keeping him home, that they are finding a way to manage his needs themselves. I am proud that his care has been so wonderful; these last few years of his life have clearly been some of his happiest. This branch of our family has suffered its share of wounds, but these last few years have been a time of tremendous healing. I am proud of him, for all the years he has farmed and remained intellectually vibrant, of the way he has grown past his own imperfections and emotional shortcomings.

I want my girls to be a part of this. I want them to see our family at a time when everyone is working together, supporting each other, offering love and care to each other, and to the one who is preparing to transition into death.

I ask them if they would like to come with me. My girls’ voices don’t waver for a second. “Yes.” I explain that he is dying, that he will probably sleep during most of our visit, that if he wakes up, he may not recognize them.

Radical Homemakers Book Link

Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture

By Shannon Hayes
Paperback, February 2010, 300 pages, $19.95.
Support YES! when you Buy Here.

Saoirse wants to know why. My answer surprises even me. “His soul is transitioning out of his body,” I tell her. “It is practicing leaving. So sometimes it is in his body, and sometimes it is away from it. But it is in the room. So even if you think he doesn’t know you are there, his soul knows. That’s why it is important for us to be there.”

And so we went. We filled his kitchen with as much love as we could. Ula played with toys at his feet, Saoirse clipped a strand of yarn from my knitting basket and played with his cats. Dad and I sat together on the couch and talked about our normal, mundane things—about Bob’s honeybees, about conversion ratios in livestock. Uncle Tommy came back from grocery shopping and we chatted about the best way to acidify the soil for blueberry bushes. Great Pop Pop slept and stirred. When he became uncomfortable, Uncle Tommy and Dad worked together to try to help him. When he was awake, his conversation wasn’t coherent, and while he looked at me with recognition, I don’t think he knew my name. He looked for telephones in drawers, asked to go to rooms that didn’t exist.

Uncle Tommy helped him into his wheelchair, and brought him over by the kitchen window. When his back was turned, Ula frantically waved her arms to get my attention. “Mommy! I have to whisper you a secret!”

I knelt down in front of her and lent her my ear. “Please don’t tell Great Pop Pop this, but I don’t like watching him die.” I hugged her. I wondered if I was wrong to bring her along, if, in my efforts to be honest with them about death, if I had caused her to fear it. Not knowing what else to say, I whispered back, “It’s okay to feel that way. You’re allowed.”

Every visit, we will say goodbye to a little more of him, so that when his time finally comes, Saoirse and Ula will know that the loss is theirs.

We left a short while later, and Ula began to cry as soon as we got into the car. She cried because my dad didn’t have time to join us for lunch. She cried because her Silly Putty was lost under the carseat. She cried because. I just let her.

I don’t know if I did the right thing, bringing my girls to visit Great Pop Pop at this time of transition. But we will probably go again very soon. And then again. Every visit, we will say goodbye to a little more of him, so that when his time finally comes, his soul will know how deeply we love him, and Saoirse and Ula will know that the loss is theirs, as well as everyone else’s. 


  • to read more of Shannon's blogs about life as a radical homemaker.

  • Radical homemaker Shannon Hayes: When standardized curricula fall short, food can teach the values I want my kids to learn.

  • What I learned about happiness during my mom's last days with cancer.