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How to Talk to Teens About Death: Our Surprisingly Uplifting Conversation

A few years after our daughter was born, my husband and I made what felt like a momentous and adult decision. We decided to have a lawyer draw up our last will and testament. We were knee deep in caring for two toddlers, sleepless and exhausted. But it was important to us that we outline who we wanted to care for our children in the event of an unexpected tragedy.

We carefully chose guardians for our children and assigned an executor to help process our assets and sell our home. It was a gut-wrenching discussion for me. I hated to think of our then tiny babies having to grow up without their parents. I felt overwhelmed to be making such decisions for them, hoping we’d chosen wisely.

While it was a tough decision at the time, as the kids grew and our lives became busier, the decisions we’d made faded into the background of our lives. I rarely gave our will much thought, content in the choices we had made and hopeful we would never have to rely on the people we’d tasked with such a heavy burden.

That is, until a few months ago. My husband jokingly asked me how I felt about the guardians and choices we’d made all those years ago.

He pointed out that our children were fast approaching ages where, in the eyes of the law, they would be independent and able to live on their own without guardians if we both died.

The realization that the will we had carefully constructed almost 15 years prior was no longer relevant hit me hard. With one teen headed to college and another one well on their way through high school, my husband was right. Times, indeed, had changed.

Updating Our Will with Our Teens: Talking to Teens About Death

And it was time to update our will.

This time, though, we had the benefit of talking to our kids about how they felt and who they would want us to appoint to help them. We broached the subject over dinner one evening a few months ago, expecting them to deflect our discussion out of fear of our potential deaths.

Our teens surprised us, though. What could have been a macabre, depressing conversation turned into an uplifting and touching discussion.

At first, they asked the basics. What would happen to our home? Would they have enough money to keep going to college? Who would help them figure out the ins and outs of estate law?

And, of course, we had those answers for them. We talked through the logistics of how a will works and who we would ask to assist them. We assured them that we’d carefully saved money to make sure they would be okay if we weren’t there to help them with college expenses.

But then the conversation went deeper.

We talked about the cherished items in our home. The pieces of furniture that had special memories attached to them. The inexpensive baubles that my daughter wanted to have for her own kids one day.

We discussed our family traditions. The recipes I hoped they’d carry on with their own families. The Christmas ornaments that were the most sacred to all of us. Much to their humor, I told them I’d haunt them to their dying days if they divulged their grandmother’s Christmas cookie recipes to anyone outside of family.

We talked about how it feels to attach memories to personal possessions and how important it was for me to have tangible items that reminded me of my father after he died. I showed them the crystal Waterford glass that he used every day after work and the T-shirt he’d bought for me that arrived two days after he’d passed away.

We also talked about grief and what it means to say goodbye.

They asked us how we hoped they’d celebrate our lives after we are gone. I made them promise to hold a big party in an Irish pub with lots of music and a picture of me looking my best propped up on the bar. My son squeezed my hand and said, “I’ll drink to that,” to which I reminded him that he could do just that… when he turned 21.

But the deepest and most special part of the conversation came when we discussed their bond with each other.

My husband and I pointed out that no one understands the grief of losing a parent better than a sibling. Then my daughter looked across the table and said, “I’m glad I have you, Bro,” and her brother sheepishly smiled in response. I realized that my kids were going to be fine when we were gone, no matter how much money and protection we leave behind.

Christine Burke

Christine Burke started the popular parenting blog, Keeper of The Fruit Loops six years ago on a whim. Since then, her work has been featured on the Today Show, Scary Mommy, Grown and Flown and other parenting websites. In her spare time, she runs marathons, collects thrift shop finds and eats ice cream like it’s her job.

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