Dealing With The D-Word

How do you talk to a 3 year-old about death, especially when you have cancer? 

For a while now, my husband and I have anticipated that Georgia would start asking questions we don’t quite know how to answer; that she would be tuning into our conversations about cancer and possibly even getting confused or frightened.  We know she’s absorbing words like “cancer” and “treatment” and “chemo” – and we don’t know how to help her make sense of them without scaring her. She could easily mix her understanding of my regular visits to hospitals and doctors into what little she grasps about death from storybooks* and movies. We knew we needed to be able talk calmly and directly with Georgia about death and dying – but we didn’t know how to get there.

Enter Morgan Livingstone, Child Life Specialist and Georgia’s new buddy. She came into our lives when I contacted Rethink Breast Cancer with my concerns and asked if they had any programs to support parents of young children.  I was amazed to find out that they could send a specialist to our home to explore through play what Georgia might be thinking or wondering about. 

Morgan and I talked at length before she met Georgia so that she would know how my husband and I feel; we speak pretty openly about my sickness and treatment and prognosis, but we hadn’t figured out how to answer the tough questions.  Morgan has good ideas, and helps us to frame what we want to say.  She tells us we need to use the actual words “death” and “dead” because little kids take things literally and euphemisms just confuse them.  She also advised me to give a name to my illness; to say that I sometimes don’t feel well because I have cancer, and that it’s not like a cold or flu and that Georgia can’t catch it from me.  Above all, Morgan stresses the importance of being consistent: she says that Georgia will come back to a subject over and over again until she thinks she understands it, and that we can’t change our story on her or she will become more confused and less trustful of the subject – and possibly of us.

Smart lady, our Morgan. She’s like a hip, blonde Patch Adams. She comes to visit Georgia every few weeks and they play and talk and make things together…  Later, Morgan and I debrief to get an idea of what might be going on in Georgia’s mind; where she is in her understanding of things.

We all love this woman.  She does amazing work – and Georgia is especially crazy about her.

But still I struggle with how to possibly answer two questions in particular, should they arise: Mama, will you die from your cancer? and What happens when someone dies?


To the first, on a good day I think I can say “We don’t think so. Sometimes some people die from cancer, but I have very good doctors and very good medicine to make me better.” I can say that because I believe it’s the truth. Most of the time.

The second question, What happens when someone dies? is a mighty big one, especially for someone way too young to pronounce Kierkegaard (is one ever old enough?) or know what “theology” means. Then there is the problem of my husband and I having rather ambiguous beliefs and zero affiliation with institutional religion.  We don’t do church, mosque or synagogue, and we think white folks who shave their heads and drape themselves Buddhist robes are a little goofy, but we’re pretty sure they’re at peace with their pretentions, so more power to ‘em.  Actually, I envy anyone who subscribes to any faith, because I’m sure it is a great comfort to have a deep reservoir of belief to dip into in dark times.  Basically, my policy is, as long as you don’t get all fanatical with people who don’t share your beliefs, then go for it: get your faith on.

But, formally faithless though I may be, I do firmly believe in the soul.  And after much searching of it, and no small amount of discussion with my cancer shrink, mom, and husband, I have come up with this answer to What happens when someone dies:

“We don’t really know. Different people believe different things happen when we die. You can ask them what they think too. Like Glamma (Georgia’s grandmother) – she believes we all go to live with the angels, and that might be what happens.  I do know that when someone dies we can’t see them or hug and kiss them anymore. But even though you can’t hug and kiss them, they never stop loving you and you always have them in your heart, wherever you go, forever.”

That’s my first draft.  I’m still working on being able to get past the part about not being able to “hug and kiss anymore” without completely choking, because I can’t imagine a time when I can’t hug and kiss my Georgia, and all the other people I love so much.  And I hate to imagine a time when they can’t hug and kiss me.

Sure enough, the other night I very nearly had to deliver that little speech. My husband was working late and Georgia and I were curled up together watching the animated movie “Up” (a safe-enough sounding title, I thought) when of course the man’s wife up and dies and Georgia asks:

“Is she dead?”

“Yes, honey she died.”

“Was she in the hospital?”


“Did you die?” (This, presumably, because I go to the hospital a lot.)

“No, I’m alive, I’m right here with you. People go to the hospital for lots of things, like to get better and fix boo boos.”

“Why did she die then?”

“I think because she was very old.”

“Why is that man sad?”

“Because he loves her and he can’t see her anymore.  He can’t hug and kiss her anymore.” (Face turned away, keeping voice steady… or steadyish.)


“Because when someone dies that’s what happens: you can’t hug and kiss them or see them anymore, but you can still love them and they always love you.  And you can still talk to them.”

Thankfully at this point the old man in the movie corroborated my explanation by addressing a photo of his dead wife, God love him.  Then the story continued on another path, and she was absorbed in it once again. “What’s that boy doing..?” 

Whew! I silently sighed my relief as she moved on.  For now.  The questions will be back again. And I know I need to be ready, or as ready as I can be. 

Onward, brave soul – this is motherhood and you signed up for it.  But keep the Kleenex handy.


*By the way, has anyone else noticed that almost all the Disney princesses are motherless? Seriously, what is up with that? It’s bizarre enough that they all look like strippers, but strippers with dead mothers? Creepy…. 


Filed under Living with Breast Cancer

8 responses to “Dealing With The D-Word

  1. Carol W.

    Very tough conversation, indeed. The “don’t let them see you cry” thing has often been a difficult thing for me with my friends and family. Some would argue that it’s okay to let those you love see you shed a tear. I’ve certainly always tried not to but perhaps it really is okay. Perhaps it lets others know that they can cry, too — that we don’t always have to be brave soldiers. I think we all need to have our moments when we acknowledge the fear, allow others comfort us and then move on. People need to do that (and others need to let us do that from time to time). I couldn’t say if that’s the right thing for someone as young as Georgia but your blog has made me think…

    As for what happens when we die — I’m also not really a person of particular “faith”. But I agree with you and believe in the soul. I also believe that we have more than one life. There’s gotta be more than just one kick at the can! I feel that I’m a young soul – many things throughout my life have come slowly to me which tells me that I’ve not experienced them before. There are things I’ve not yet done and likely won’t be able to experience, and what I hold onto sometimes is that I’ll get to do it next time around. With each life (my hope is) we become a better version of ourselves — building on what we’ve learned from our lives lived and the loves in our lives.

    You’re a good mom, Leanne. Undoubtedly you will handle it well.

  2. Jodi

    Today, my little one kept telling and re-telling the story of how Sophia’s cat died before she was born (It DIED. Sophia’s (pronounced Bopia cat DIED. It DIED before (pronounced Bebore) she born…etc.) I recalled your thoughtful post. Makes lots of sense. Like how I keep having the same dream about stuff my subconscious is trying to process (leaving law school, break ups, etc.) Kids just do it in a more transparent way I guess.

  3. Keri-Lyn

    As a admirer and regular follower of your blog, I hope you will permit me a few lines here, Leanne, to let your readership know that I am participating in a Snowshoe Walk to raise money for breast cancer research. I will be participating in the walk (and I may race, if I can get my little pegs in shape!) for you, my late grandmother, and Every Woman. If there are women out there who wish to join me, follow the link below and come on along! All the best for 2010, Leanne, to you and your beautiful family.

  4. leanne coppen

    Thanks KERI-LYN — that sounds like such a cool way to fundraise and raise awareness for breast cancer! I’m honoured to be among the people you’re snow-shoeing for!

    And JODI and CAROL, thanks for your thougthful comments. It continues to be a tough subject — but ultimately I think it’s a natural part of the human experience, and it needs to be treated as something that is a natural part of the cycle of life — like Bopie’s cat dying. It happens all the time, and we shouldn’t create a lot of fear around it.

    Now if I could just stop the waterworks when I have to talk about it, I’m sure my delivery of the whole “it’s just a natural part of the cycle of life” schpeel would be a lot more convincing!

  5. Kira

    Oh my dear strong friend. This one was a tear jerker. Am on day three at work and feeling emotional anyhow, so this just did me in. Luckily the kleenex box was handy. I too believe that no matter the faith or lack-there-of, we all have souls, and yours is a beautiful one. Hugs. K

  6. Chicago liposuction

    That was so emotional! You have a wonderful heart! I agree with Kira that we still have beautiful souls though very few. And yours is one of them. Jesus bless you!

  7. Chicago liposuction

    That was so emotional! You have a wonderful heart! I agree with Kira that we still have beautiful souls though very few. And yours is one of them. Jesus bless you!
    Chicago liposuction

  8. sarah

    One of my favorite entries to date! Made me cry but still managed to end it with a laugh. You are the best. Onward young grasshopper!

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