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Talking to Your Children about Death after Divorce

Talking about, thinking about, even preparing for death in Western culture is a really difficult topic for almost all of us. After divorce we may become even more aware of our vulnerability and sometimes even more fearful of leaving our children if something should happen to us.

That’s why it’s important to prepare for the (hopefully unlikely) possibility of death after divorce and to talk to your children about your plans. This post offers a few pointers to get you started.

I’ve seen the firsthand importance of both preparation for and conversations about death and dying over the past couple of years, most recently with the death of a neighbor almost exactly my age. She had three kids, like me, and they were similar in age. She was diagnosed with advanced liver cancer about 18 months ago, and the doctors gave her just a couple months to live. She survived much longer, teaching special needs kids at a local elementary school and keeping up a normal life as much as possible. She did not want people to know of her illness or treat her differently, right up until the end. Yet her family had the time to say their goodbyes, make their plans, and prepare as much as possible for the inevitable outcome. Her funeral last week was a wonderful celebration of the many lives she touched and reflected her wishes to focus on what she had contributed, not what had been lost.

The death of our neighbor provided an opportunity to initiate some conversations with my children about my own death. Here’s how I did it (keeping in mind that my kids are teens and young adults):

  • I opened the topic with a question: The death of our neighbor last week made me sad for her family, especially her kids who are about the same ages as you. If something were to happen to me, are there any questions you would want answered beforehand? Any information you need? Anything you want to know? [It may be appropriate to preface this by letting your kids know that there is nothing wrong with you now, and also that your love for them is a given.]
  • I listened to their questions and answered as much as I could. Most of the questions were practical things about the house and bills and what would happen to them. And if there was money to pay off their student loans or finish college.
  • I shared the basic information that I have a will, where it is kept, who is named as executor, who has medical power of attorney, and who is named as guardian (where still applicable). We also discussed at a high level that there was an equal distribution of whatever I had (not to expect a lot, but there are some assets!) and how it would be distributed.
  • I also let them know that I have a list on my computer with all the key assets, policies, contact information, etc. and where a printed copy could be found if it was needed.
  • I encouraged them to consider other questions they might have and to let me know what they are whenever they come up.

Although it sounds heavy and somber, this conversation actually had some laughter and lightness to it. I joked that I would have to be careful or they would be knocking me off to pay their student loans. They joked about having the heat turned off in the house because they didn’t know how to pay the bills, or being homeless on the streets when the bank foreclosed. It also gave me the chance to affirm my love for them and to let them know that part of being a loving parent is to prepare for the unexpected and to confront the hard things, like the prospect of your own death. And I was able to receive their love in the form of them hoping I’d be around for many years to come.

Note: To have this kind of conversation, it’s best to have done your homework and put some of the preparations in place, such as a will. This blog post provides some guidelines for what to prepare and some questions to consider as you think about making a will and other preparations after divorce.

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