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The Difficulty of Grieving in Front of Our Kids

Monday, September 27, 2021

By Nora Zelevansky

Not long ago, my husband’s uncle died. It was the first time we had to break the news of someone’s death to our then six-year-old daughter.

“I’ve got this,” my husband, Andrew, promised as we stood side by side. He called my daughter in.

“Hey,” Andrew said as she entered the room. “You know Uncle Norman, like Norman and Jan?”

My daughter’s face lit up. “Are they coming to visit?!” she exclaimed, eyes wide with excitement. “When?!”

My husband panicked, flustered by her enthusiasm. “No, no,” he stumbled. “This isn’t, like, a good thing. He’s — dead!”

Our daughter looked at him in shock, then burst into tears.

As Andrew gathered her up in his arms and tried to comfort her, he shot me a sheepish look over her shoulder.

I gave him a thumbs up. Great job.

But the truth is, there is no good way to break news like that to your child. Navigating death and grief with kids is a unique kind of challenge, and I’m certainly no expert. It’s a dose of reality from which we’d prefer to shield them.

Then, in the days, weeks, and months that follow, there’s the business of processing our own sadness, anger, and confusion, while still tending to their needs. There are still bedtime routines to complete, booboos to Band-Aid, and, for older kids, school assignments to manage and meals to make, no matter how distracted and anguished we might feel.

On top of that, there’s the question of how much emotion to show. How candid can you be without scaring children or making them feel like the adult in the room is out of control? What’s the right amount of mourning for them to witness?


In March of 2017, I was pregnant and walking my daughter who was three at the time home from preschool when my phone started to ring. And ring. And ring. I ignored the first couple of calls, but then I started to sense that something was awry. Many of the calls were from old friends who I didn’t speak to regularly.

When I finally picked one up, a barely audible voice delivered a jumble of words and then hiccuped, “He’s gone!” At first, I didn’t know who she meant.

“Who?” I asked, rolling my daughter’s stroller off to the side, so as not to block the sidewalk.

“Nick,” she cried. “He’s gone!”

Nick was a very old friend of mine, the kind of kindred soul you discover is even rarer than you thought as you get older and begin to navigate the world. We’d known each other since we were six years old. He was a part of me. I couldn’t imagine a universe without him.

Overcome by shock, I struggled to catch my breath. My eyes welled and I was about to start crying when I remembered where I was: on the street in Park Slope. With my toddler daughter. Who was staring at me in confusion while digging a hand into her freeze-dried strawberry snacks.

Somehow, I reined myself in. I told my friend I had to go and that I’d call her back. Then, I raced home, knowing that no matter how I felt, my reaction would need to wait.

For months after that, I saved mourning for my alone time — while the baby napped, when my daughter was at school, even when my husband was at his office. I worked on a new novel about loss; I sorted through endless photos. Basically, I allowed myself to process what had happened as long as there was no one to bear witness to the scene. Sometimes it was helpful to feign cheerfulness for the kids because it actually did distract me. Sometimes it was exhausting.

One down day, I guess I didn’t do a great job of hiding how I was feeling because my daughter, who has always had a dangerously high emotional IQ for her age, asked me why I was sad. I thought for a moment about how to express what I felt in a way that would make sense to her.

Finally, I said, “I have a friend who I really miss and can’t see.”

“Oh,” she asked, her brow furrowing. “Who?”

And so I started to tell her about Nick. About how we’d been friends since first grade (not much older than she was at that time), how we used to always get stuck together at school because we both had last names that started with “Z,” how he was an amazing artist and musician, but didn’t like to sit still.

I told her about the countless times he almost got me kicked out of class for laughing after he drew terrifyingly accurate comics of our teachers; about how people would always ask us if we’d heard of the duo Nick and Nora Charles, and we would nod and then shoot each other irritated looks.

I’m not sure how much my daughter absorbed. Most likely, she lost interest after a minute or two and started to wonder about the location of her Moana doll. But afterward, I realized that I felt relief for the first time in a while. It suddenly occurred to me that, as a parent, I had an opportunity to share stories about my friend and, in some small way, keep his memory alive. I could help my kids to know him even in his absence. My grief could be communicated in a less intimidating way by sharing his stories.

After the memorial, Nick’s mother sent me some of his old drawings, perfect illustrations for the walls of a kid’s room. We hung them prominently. To this day, I regularly point and ask both my children, “Do you remember who drew this?”

Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. But, either way, it gives me the opportunity to think and talk about my friend.

“His name was Nick,” I tell them as they gaze up at his artwork. “And he’s a very important person to me.”


Nora Zelevansky is the author of Competitive Grieving, Will You Won’t You Want Me? and Semi-Charmed Life. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, ELLE, Town & Country, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Vanity Fair, among others. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband, two kids, and an enormous cat, Waldo.