I had a brown ‘n’ serve roll in my hand and a Vesuvius of buttered mashed potatoes on my plate. It was Thanksgiving and my 7th birthday, 1983.
My grandmother sat across from me, my brother beside, my parents at the ends, but conspicuously absent under the table was our dog, Mingo, a black cocker spaniel. Days before, my mother had sprawled on the kitchen floor, holding him, pleading with him to swallow medicine meant to mitigate the effects of his kidney disease. He grew weaker, sicker. The day before my birthday, my parents took Mingo to the vet, where he stayed overnight.
“Where’s Mingo?” I asked repeatedly at the Thanksgiving table.
My parents exchanged pained glances. I know now that life had put them in an impossible bind. Mingo had been dying for months and suffering for weeks. The vet urged euthanasia then and there. My parents reluctantly but humanely agreed. But how to tell me? So they didn’t, hoping to wait until after my birthday.
“Where’s Mingo?” I wouldn’t let it go.
Finally, they admitted he’d “been put to sleep.” I ran from the table in tears.
It turns out, I wasn’t the only one struggling that day. Death had also come to the unlikeliest and safest of all spaces: Sesame Street.
In what would become one of the show’s most famous episodes, broadcast on Thanksgiving Day, when show executives knew grown-ups would be home watching with their kids, Big Bird learned that Mister Hooper, who ran Sesame’s corner store and lovingly made his birdseed milkshakes, had died.
“Mister Hooper’s not coming back,” one of the adult cast members, Susan, told Big Bird. All the adults were there, gathered in a semi-circle, exchanging the same pained glances my parents did across our table.
“Why not?” Big Bird asked.
“Big Bird, when people die they don’t come back,” Susan told him.
“Well,” Big Bird said, his voice fluttering with fear and confusion. “Why not?”
What followed is a master class in how to talk with young children about death. My co-host for Life Kit’s audio guide Parenting: Difficult Conversations, Anya Kamenetz, and I revisited that episode with Rosemarie Truglio, a developmental psychologist and senior vice president of education and research at Sesame Workshop, and together we distilled it to a handful of useful takeaways for parents.
1. Be honest and concrete.
When it comes to describing the what of death to kids — what exactly happens to our bodies and what that means — Truglio says it’s important to be straightforward. That’s because children often struggle to grasp death’s permanence. And parents only complicate matters when, instead of being concrete, they resort to euphemisms. In fairness, we do this to soften the blow for kids, but Truglio says euphemisms can confuse and even scare children
“Passed away, we’re sorry for your loss, went on a long, long journey.” Truglio says each of these phrases sends the wrong message to kids. The dead don’t pass or get lost or pack a bag and start walking.
Especially problematic are the words parents often use, as mine did, when a pet is euthanized.
“We put the dog to sleep. That’s a really big one,” Truglio says, explaining that this is how kids hear those words: “If you’re telling me now that the dog went to sleep and is not going to wake up and died, well, I go to sleep every night. Am I going to die?”
Instead, Truglio says, be perfectly clear:
“When you die, your heart stops, your body stops working. You don’t eat. You don’t breathe — to give more concrete information about what is the meaning of death,” Truglio says.
2. Take it slowly.
Kids process death in bits and pieces, over time, Truglio says. Don’t sit them down once, overwhelm them with information and expect them to internalize it all.