Dead chickens and discussing death at home: the effects on children

Thursday, 23 Jan 2014 19:40

About Dr. Monica Williams-Murphy (120 Posts)

Dr. Monica Williams-Murphy is a Board Certified Emergency Medicine Physician, who practices in one of the largest emergency departments in the United States at Huntsville Hospital. Through her writing and speaking, she is devoted to transforming the end of life into a time of peace, closure and healing. Media Page


We live on a farm. My kids have seen chickens “born” and chickens die. Some of our chickens have died of old age, some of our chickens have been eaten by the dog, and some of our chickens have been eaten by us. My middle daughter casually calls this “the cycle of life.” :-)

This past year a whole generation of our pets died off. For a while we even had a goldfish in the freezer awaiting official burial in our pet cemetery. 

Does all this sound weird or morbid to you?

If so, maybe you need to visit our house for a while, where we talk openly about death -it naturally arises as a subject of curiosity for children and at times becomes a pressing conversation when we see it or come close to it in our daily lives.

As parents, our usual approach is simply to discuss dying (and related issues such as grief) as a natural part of life.  We do not cower from the topic and are willing to talk about all aspects of how and why life ends.

So what’s the product of this type of open and casual conversation about death? How does it affect children?

Here are 4 examples from my family:

~My middle daughter, who is 10, said that when she turned 50 she was going to have a huge birthday party and that I was invited.

She asked, “Mommy how old will you be when I’m 50?

I said, “I’ll be 83!”

She asked, “Will you be in good health?”

My reply: “I don’t know and I may not even be alive at that time.”  

Without hesitation she commented, “Well if you have already died and it was your time to go, I will be a little sad but I will still have a happy birthday because I know you would want me to do that. But if you are well and can come, then I will be very excited! But on the other hand, if you are living in the bed wearing a diaper and cannot enjoy yourself then it’ll be okay for you to go on at that time… that’ll be my birthday gift to you to be at peace and comfortable…” she was patting my hand as she conveyed this.

~When one of our pets died my oldest child, who is quite dramatic, was very upset. There was much weeping and wailing throughout the house. Then suddenly, things became very quiet. Walking into our sunroom to check on the kids, I found my two younger daughters holding the older sister and stroking her hair. The baby girl was telling her, “It’s okay to cry.” The middle daughter said, “I know it’s sad, but everything dies and it’s okay– that’s the way God made us.”

~My very own grandmother died while I was writing the book, “It’s OK to Die.”  After I arrived back home from the hospital, I gathered my little girls around me to tell them that she was gone. We all began to weep. My oldest, at that moment in her wisdom, said- “I’m crying because I am sad for us but happy for her. She is no longer suffering.”

~Recently, my youngest had a serious bike accident and injured her neck in a way that could have been fatal. As 911 was called and amidst great panic and fear by the rest of us, she calmly asked, “Am I going to die?” (I was both relieved that she didn’t die and impressed that she had the equanimity to ask such a profound question in the midst of her own physical crisis.)

If all of this sounds very advanced to you…it is.

Yet, these are the effects of simply discussing death in the family setting. This is what happens when death is viewed as a part of life. This is what happens when children see chickens “born” and chickens die, and when parents talk openly about death and dying.


How do you talk to children about the end of life?


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Our Book: It's OK to Die

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4 thoughts on “Dead chickens and discussing death at home: the effects on children

  1. Rea

    How do you talk to children about the end of life? Just this way! As tho it were a natural event in life – which “modern” society says it isn’t anymore. As tho it’s not to be feared too much – which society says isn’t so. As tho it can happen comfortably at home – which society still says is unacceptable and please rush to the hospital for lifesaving. As tho not everybody can be saved to fight another day – which society says is wrong and that cures must be sought. — Children may not have the same understanding of death that adults have. That is no reason to hide from them. If death discussions feel natural to the adults/parents, the children will grow in understanding without undue anxiety. That is the way children will become our New Normal in dealing with end of life. And isn’t that what we want?? Isn’t that what we are trying to teach?? Dr. Murphy’s children have a good (great!) head start! Together, we will change this society yet again! — In some respects, the old ways were better ways to live – and die.

  2. Pingback: Dead chickens and discussing death at home: the effects on children | It’s OK to Die | All Things Palliative - Article Feed

  3. Julie Saeger Nierenberg

    I love this post and your comment too, Rea. This open and matter-of-fact manner is how I also chose/choose to talk to my kids about death, as though it’s the normal and natural conclusion of living, neither to be feared nor too revered. What I mean by that is we joke about it, put forth novel approaches to dealing with it — I’m open to creativity making life and death a better experience for any and all — and I speak plainly with them about my experiences of being-with dying/dead loved ones and what I believe may come before and after (or parallel to) this life. Thank you for this delightful family glimpse. Just as we welcome a new dawn, happy to be living and breathing, there comes a time when we also welcome dusk, or at least that has been my experience with those who are ready and waiting for death.

  4. Merilynne Rush

    How I wish my family had talked openly about death. The first I remember it coming up was when I was 7 and I asked to go to the funeral of a great aunt. I was told, “Children don’t go to funerals.” I wanted to know what death was all about, but I learned that I couldn’t ask my family members! But perhaps a good result of having to work it myself is that now I am a natural death and funeral care educator myself. I’m on a mission, like you, Monica, to help people talk about death. Thanks for all you do!


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