Conversations about death have become the weekly norm in our house.

This hasn’t always been the case, of course. It started last March when our family of four flew on a small regional jet from Jackson, Mississippi, to Atlanta, Georgia. Upon landing, my husband, James, did what any normal person would do on his or her birthday: He powered on his iPhone and opened up Facebook, expecting comments and well wishes of another year lived to the fullest. But none of us—not him, not me, not our sons, and certainly not the 40 other passengers on the plane—expected his tears.

James’s birthday is not only a day of celebration—it’s also a poignant reminder of tremendous loss. Even though my husband’s twin brother, Joseph, had died eight years earlier, the Facebook birthday greetings triggered a sudden, heavy wave of grief. In that moment, remembering the loss of one life far outweighed the joy of the one who lived.

Tears streamed down my husband’s face. Loud, ugly hiccups took up residence in his throat as, weeping, he stood to retrieve our bags from the overhead compartment. A hallowed silence fell over the small plane—until our preschooler asked the obvious: “Why is Dada crying?”

My own eyes wet with sympathy, I wrapped my arms around my babies and tried to provide some sort of answer to the biggest “why” I’d ever been asked. Fellow passengers and crew honored the moment with silence and nods of compassion. Eventually, my son’s questions ceased and I believed the conversation was over.

But really, the conversation had only begun—and, like many other families touched by grief, we were left wondering how to talk to our children about death.

The ...

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