Today we are talking with author, parent coach, and child life specialist Michelle McVittie! Michelle is not only the author of I Quit! Oh wait, I’m the Mom: A practical guide to finding your joy again and parent coach, but also a specialist in dealing with pediatric medical and mental health. She provides support to parents who are in a state of overwhelm by giving crucial support and advice whether it’s helping  with teen behaviour, strong willed children, parenting kids with adhd, or going through hard transitions with health and life.

Our discussion today is a heavy one, but full of very important information that we think every parent should know more about. Grief is something that all parents will have to explain to their children at some point in time, and Michelle gives us some excellent ways of being open and having that conversation. With all that being said you’re not going to want to miss this episode!

Guest Expert Michelle McVittie

Michelle McVittie is a child life specialist, parent coach, and author. Her first book “I Quit! Oh Wait I’m the Mom” is a self-help book full of practical tips to find your joy again. In her twenty-year career, Michelle has worked with thousands of families children. She is the parenting expert for CHCH morning live and had her own parenting show on Cable 14. She has worked in daycares as a behaviour specialist, with young offenders, in pediatric medical and mental health, and now her own business. She specializes in strong willed children, ADHD, and anxiety.

In This Episode We Talk About

3:46 – Starting the conversation about death with your children.
6:14 – What is the process? How do you have these conversations?
15:40 – Tips on how to help children grieve, and how to grieve yourself.
19:55 – What are your thoughts on maintaining a routine?
24:07 – how to talk about grief with various ages of children – from early childhood to teens.
37:19 – Legacy building.
41:44 – Resources for families dealing with grief.

Watch the Video – Talking to Kids About Death and Illness

Listen to the Audio – Talking to Kids About Death and Illness

Resource Links

The Memory Box: A book about grief by Joanna Rowlad
Lifetimes: A beautiful way to explain death to children by Bryan Mellonie
The Next Place by Warren Hanson
I’ll Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm
I Quit! Oh wait, I’m the Mom: A practical guide to finding your joy again by Michelle McVittie
Center for Loss & Life Transition
Bereaved Families of Ontario
BC Bereavement Helpline
Canadian Grief Alliance
Michelle McVittie Youtube
Mom the Manager Website
Email: [email protected]
Overworked to Overjoyed Facebook Group
Mom the Manager Instagram

Reflection Questions

  1. Was there a time in your childhood where you had to deal with death or illness? What was that process like for you? What kind of support do you wish you had? Did you have a good takeaway that you can implement when it’s needed?
  2. How can you start preparing your children now by incorporating these kinds of conversations into your everyday?
  3. What was your biggest takeaway when it comes to how to talk to your kids when their inevitably is a death or illness in the family?
  4. When a death or illness comes up how will you try to prioritize your overall wellbeing?
  5. What can you do to support a friend or family member who is dealing with death or illness?
  6. Where do you think your child currently fits on the development scale for understanding the permanence of death and the concepts of illnesses?
  7. Have you shied away from these conversations in the past? How do you think you can do things differently when a similar situation arises?
  8. What legacy building ideas resonated with you? What ways can you see yourself doing different legacy building activities in the future?

Read the Full Conversation

Hello everybody! Today we’re here with Michelle McVittie, and today we are talking about having hard conversations with kids around sickness, illnesses, death, and grief in general. So, Michelle McVittie is a child life specialist, parent coach and author. Her first book, I Quit! Oh wait, I’m the Mom: A practical guide to finding your joy again is a self-help book full of practical tips to find your joy again. In her 20 year career, Michelle has worked with thousands of families and children. She’s the parenting expert for CHCH morning live, and had her own parenting show on cable 14. She has worked in daycares as a behavior specialist with young offenders, pediatric medical and mental health, and now her own business. She specializes in strong willed children, ADHD and anxiety. So thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today!

My pleasure. And it’s a really exciting thing – I mean, it’s not an exciting thing to talk about death and illness – but as I was saying to you earlier, as a child life specialist, my career started off in the hospital and working in situations that are not fun. I mean, dealing with ill children, I also dealt with children with mental illness that were hospitalized. And also, I was called in to deal with children of adult patients that were either dying or had a new diagnosis – so we were brought in to kind of support that. So it’s an uncomfortable thing, however, it needs to be done. And sometimes, when we’re uncomfortable, we just avoid, and then children come up with their own ideas. So I’m very grateful to you. Because of your platform, you do talk about things that are taboo. And I don’t think they need to be taboo anymore. And we need to change that. And I’m so excited to be here because we are part of that change. So let’s get started!

I completely agree, thank you! And, wow, to start your career off in the hospitals, that must have been just throwing yourself right into it.

Yeah, it was. It’s a career that’s bigger in America than it is in Canada, but it’s not a profession that a lot of people know about. It’s getting a lot bigger in the hospitals, you’ll see child life specialists in the emergency department. It can be very traumatic to be in the hospital and to have procedures done, and in the past, children were left on their own. It was just the nurses that were taking care of children, and there was a lot of trauma. So that’s where child life started; we had to make this not so traumatic for children, and support parents and support children and wrap around them. It’s uncomfortable, but through adversity and through building resiliency, children can do well, even if they have chronic illness, even if they’ve had surgeries, it doesn’t have to be so traumatic.

And having the support of people like you and the resources really makes a world of difference for families in those situations.

It does, yeah.

Well, let’s dive right into it. We can kind of start just talking about death in general, and then going into specifics when there are illnesses or death in the family. What are your thoughts on talking to kids just about death in general? Do you think it’s something we should be having the conversation right from the get-go, or more so when something comes up?

Well, I think it just depends on your preference. I think that if we’re normalizing conversations, then it’s a little less traumatic when it does come up, because we’ve talked about this before, but we also need to be mindful of the age of our children. Like under four, they’re not really understanding what you mean, anyway. After four, sure, we can read different books, there are things that come up in stories. I mean, look at Disney, everybody dies in Disney. Bambi’s mom died right away! 

So those conversations and things can happen if we take those opportunities to kind of talk about it. But the majority of time, we don’t talk about it because we don’t know what to say, we feel uncomfortable. And then what we feel is that we have to protect our children. And my motto is, are you preparing your child, or are you protecting them? You’re protecting infants and toddlers, you need to start preparing children. And I don’t mean throwing them into the deep end. But having conversations, normalizing being uncomfortable ourselves, and then maybe our child being a little uncomfortable, that at least gets our conversation going. And if you don’t have the answers, you can always say “that’s a great question, I don’t know, I’ll look into that.” So, yeah, having books talking about things, talking about what happened in a story or in a movie – I would start talking about that.

Sometimes we just need to push ourselves and be okay if we stumble, or if we don’t have the answers. It’s just about normalizing it, having the conversations, and then we can check back and look for resources when we feel that we need to, but just starting is a good thing to do.

Exactly, exactly, yeah.

So now, what is the process? Or how do you recommend talking to kids when there is an illness, or a terminal illness or death?

Well, it depends on what it is, and what will be happening. Because we should be talking to our children about chronic illness too. Chronic illness could be diabetes, it could be kidney disease, things that maybe eventually will become terminal (but not necessarily), but something that they’ll have to deal with. 

The other thing is that there could be a child in the classroom – you know, a friend comes over and they have diabetes, or they have cancer, and there’s different things that happen. And, you know, let’s talk about that, let’s have conversations, and just allow the child space for questions and just to have an emotion about it. I think sometimes what parents struggle with is that the child will kind of go back to playing and doing things – like we’ve just lost somebody, we’re just finding out about this, how are they acting like this. But this is normal for children, because developmentally this is how they process, and then they will continue asking sometimes the same questions over and over again. They want to go back to school, because their friends are there, they play. Those are things that we see as they’re not dealing, but they actually are dealing. 

But they will ask questions, sometimes repetitively, because they’ve got a process, right? The brain is under construction until 25, so they’re trying to figure out what exactly is going on. So if something comes up, then let’s talk about that. I mean, books are great; I think it’s finding a book that you resonate with, that your child resonates with, to possibly open up conversation. So what does it mean to have cancer? What does it mean to have diabetes? 

And the thing that I would say is that there’s different types of sick, right? So sometimes we get sick, and we have to stay home. Sometimes we have some medicine, like Tylenol, we sleep a little bit, and then it kind of goes away. Sometimes we have to go to the doctor. And other times, we have to go to the hospital, and the doctors are going to take care of this person, they’re going to do the best that they can to help them. And there may not be a recovery, right? So there may be a recovery. 

I mean, there’s so many different facets. So what I would say to a parent is to kind of find out what’s going to be happening, or if the child has to go for a test. Even if you have to go for a test, find out what’s going to be happening. So what is grandma going to look like? If we go and visit, what do we expect? Because everybody gets really, really scared about the tubes – everybody always says “there’s all these tubes!” And I know what these tubes are, because I’ve been around it, and I explain things – and they’re actually not that scary, but they can be overwhelming. So looking at pictures of what an IV looks like; an IV is just giving you fluid and it goes right into your vein. There’s no needle, the needle comes out. Everybody thinks the needle stays in there (it doesn’t). And then they can give medicine right into their veins so they don’t have to take it through their mouth. So if they’re gonna have a port, that would be something else that’s for cancer. Are they going to have a PICC? line? All these kinds of things that it’s like, “what do we need to explain, and how much do we need to explain it?” And it’s just really simplifying it. It’s just not a black and white answer, unfortunately.

But I think that’s a really good point on the preparations, I found that really helpful for my kids in so many different situations. For example, getting their vaccines, going through what to expect, going into the office, talking about the needles, saying it’s going to be a quick little poke and explaining it to them, and even demoing things with their teddy bears and that sort of thing. We’ve done that with pooping too, it can be really helpful to help them really understand what to expect, to avoid that shock and overwhelm and help it be more familiar and less scary.

Exactly, exactly. So I mean, whether somebody had their appendix removed and had to stay in the hospital because of that, or they have diabetes, or they have cancer, kind of explaining those little bits and pieces. So they understand that it’s nothing that that person did wrong, that it’s not contagious. I mean, not everything is like that. But it depends on what it is, right? You can’t catch cancer – we don’t need to get into genetics and this and that, but you can’t catch it, it’s nothing that they did wrong, or something that they ate. 

We have to keep it simplified for children, because there’s lots of different dynamics. We don’t need to get into the fact they were smoking for 20 years, you know? Sometimes we feel like we give too much information. So it’s just those little things like “we’re going to take care of them, they’re going to be more tired, they’re not going to be able to play as much, but the doctors are going to do the best that they can.” And I think the thing is when you start knowing that the doctors can no longer help them, that they did the best that they could, is that we don’t leave this to the very, very end. And in my profession, this is the unfortunate piece that happens, and I see it. And it’s like we wait until the last minute, when they’re possibly unconscious now because they’re in the ICU, or they’re no longer lucid, so we can’t have those goodbyes, we can’t do that legacy building. We’ve kind of waited and waited until we’re forced into it. And it’s a very uncomfortable thing to have to do in crisis. And then to pull a professional in to have those conversations in crisis. I don’t want to hear from a stranger that my grandmother is dying, I want to hear from my parent, you know? So you could ask somebody to support you in that, and what are the words, but they want to hear it from you, and not in crisis. So trying to build that up is really important.

That’s a very good point. And I could see dealing with these things. There’s so many things going on, it can be really easy to get caught up in all things and kind of forget that piece until you are in the moment of crisis. But that’s a very good point, the full preparation process, and to really consider that and kind of check in throughout the long stage of the illness, what’s coming up next, how can we talk about it with them to prepare them for it.

Right. And I think a lot of it too, what you’re talking about, is we have to be somewhat present as well. Because we need to take care of ourselves. A lot of people just say “oh, just keep working, keep yourself busy, don’t worry about it.” and then we avoid it. And our children are looking to us for that guidance, for that support. And when we’re distressed and we’re not emotionally available to them, then they don’t have that support. So you know, a lot of us were brought up like that, and that’s why we have burnout: we don’t deal with our emotions, we just cover up. Just smile, everything is okay, numb it out with wine or whatever it is. And it’s so normalized, that we don’t learn to deal with our emotions, we don’t ask for help, until our face is down in the carpet. And if your family member or somebody is ill, we have to be taking care of ourselves and reaching out for support, asking to see the social worker in the hospital, seeing what supports are available to you. Because it is tough on us, and then our children need us as well.

Yeah, I think that’s a really great thing to note, too, is when we’re dealing with these things, like you mentioned, we can go into burnout, and we’re just trying to check all the boxes and keep the wheels turning. But in these moments where we have so much going on, we need to choose where to drop the ball, we cannot keep all the things going. And I truly think our wellness, our emotional well-being, our physical health, and that of our family is most important. And it’s okay if the house is a mess for a while. It’s okay if you’re not making meals most nights of the week. Give yourself grace to drop those balls so you can really focus on yourself and being there for your family. 

Absolutely, yeah. 

Do you have any tips that you’ve recommended for your patients? For these times, in terms of that side of things?

Well, I think a lot of it is giving permission to feel. And this is just generational. That you leave your tears for your pillow, be strong for your kids, be strong for your partner. And sometimes we do get into that mode of like, “I don’t have time because I’ve got to check in with the doctor, I’ve got to make arrangements, I’ve got to be doing this, I’ve got to be doing that, and I can’t take a break.” You’re not sleeping well. So giving someone that permission – sometimes they need to hear that from somebody, to say, “it’s okay to take your foot off the gas.” 

So what happens is that we have friends that sometimes don’t know what to do. So a friend can reach out and say, “I’m here for you, can I drop off a meal?” Don’t ask “what can I do for you?” So if we have those people around us, how can we step in and support them in ways that will help them take the load off? Maybe come in and watch their kids so they can go take a nap. You know, those little things that don’t cost anything. 

But, we have to be able to accept that help, right? So when we’re saying “no, no, no, I got this, I got this. No, only I can watch the children. No, I’m not buying any more takeout food I have to cook.” And then we put that extra pressure on ourselves. Giving that permission, stepping back a little bit, being able to accept help – a lot of us see that as a sign of weakness. And if I peel that layer off, then what’s going to happen? This awful lot of emotion will happen, and I won’t be able to stop it. So there’s no simple answer, but I think just that permission sometimes is what people need.

Yeah, accepting the help. And I really like that you touched on, in terms of friends and being that support person, offer them options to say yes to, not a “yes or no.” When I talk about that, with postpartum too, don’t say “let me know if I can help,” give them the options and say “I’ll bring you this or this meal, which one do you watch?”

I love that, absolutely. I think some people are like “well, it’s none of my business.” And I’m a working minds facilitator, so it’s for mental health stigma. So I train professionals on mental health stigma in the workplace, and what to do. And, you know, a lot of times when I’m doing this training, people are like, “this is kind of fluffy” or “it’s none of my business why they’re off.” But if somebody’s off because they’re off on a mental health leave, you won’t check in. But if they are off because they broke their back or they have cancer. we will check in. So the message is”this is not okay, but this I’ll check in on you.” And this is that in between, where they’re not ill themselves, but they could be struggling, they could be having a hard time with emotion, they could be having a hard time coping. And the message that they get is, “oh, we’re just gonna stay out of it. This is none of our business.” Right? So we have to change that. We’ve got to change that in our society.

Yeah, I think that’s really important. And I think we’re starting to see that shift more and more with awareness around mental health, and I’m hopeful that it will be much different for kids.

Yeah, it’s very different for our children now, the way we’re bringing up our children; they’re going to be amazing citizens, amazing partners. Can you imagine? You know, I have a husband and he’s fifty. So the way he was brought up – we’ve worked through things, gone to therapy, all kinds of stuff. But I just think of my son and what he’s like – he’s gonna be an amazing citizen because he’s got so much emotional intelligence!

That’s pretty incredible. So earlier, you had touched a little bit on the routine, and how kids develop a bit differently in terms of going to play or wanting to be at school. So I’m guessing throughout this, it would be a recommendation to maintain routines, to maintain that stability for them. I could see in certain situations, wanting to pull back, because I know myself, when I’m not feeling great, I tend to pull back and want to cancel different things. What are your thoughts on that?

Yeah, and I think it’s a healthy balance and understanding what each child needs and what you need. And I think there’s a difference between avoidance and taking your foot off the gas, right? Because people that shut down, they feel like they’re handling their emotion, versus that person that their heads pop off. They’re both unhealthy, and we have to find that happy medium. Because taking a break and sleeping – we need sleep, right? If we’re not getting that seven to eight hours, then yeah. Like, have you ever watched Survivor? They don’t do well, they’re not eating, they’re not sleeping, they’re making poor decisions. So you know, it’s the same thing for us. When we are avoiding life, or sleeping the day away, or the weekend away, we’re numbing ourselves out, that is not helpful coping.

So it’s the same thing with our children, if they need to take a break, and not go to hockey practice, and not do these things. But maybe we don’t feel up to it, so can I can the neighbor take them. I’m all about community parenting – can somebody else take my child, you don’t have to go to every practice, every game, maybe you’re going to take that break. But that child is really going to look forward to going to school, or daycare, or that play date, I just maybe cannot do that. And the other child maybe needs some more cuddles and needs some more downtime. Because it’s looking at each child individually, and everybody needs something different. 

But routines are so helpful in general. If you’re feeling overwhelmed in life, having a routine, understanding time management skills, things like that, it takes the nagging away, it takes the stress and the chaos out. And some children get more stressed out because of the chaos, right? So some children are like “whatever,” and others are picking up on your emotion, they’re picking up on your stress, and that chaos in the home makes them shut down or act out. So routine in general, what it’s doing is teaching life skills, it’s taking the chaos out, and you’re setting up those priorities. And when things like this happen, those routines, and those schedules, bring stability. And we as parents do not have to do as much because we’ve already set this up. So, my children are sixteen and thirteen. But for years, they set their own alarms, they make their own lunches, they make their own breakfast, they walk to and from school. And they can do that. But it didn’t just happen magically, we had to set this up. And when we’re doing these things now, they’re even more of a blessing when crisis does come up. Because we can fall into those routines. And the children can start doing things, they can continue just to do things on their own. 

Yeah, routines can be really helpful. And that’s something, again in postpartum for me, when I wasn’t in the best space mentally, I really clung on to kind of my basic routine, and made sure to get outside and hit those self care markers to help keep me at a good point. Because once you start to let those things slip, it can be really easy to kind of spiral down and like you talked about being kind of consumed in the chaos.

Exactly. Yeah, for sure.

I’d love to chat a bit about, developmentally, the different stages, from very young into teenagers with their understanding of the concepts around illness and death and that sort of thing.

Yes. So like I said earlier, under four they’re not understanding the permanence of death. So we can say things like “their body no longer works.” With anybody, we don’t want to be saying “they went to a better place you,” or “they bought the farm;” all these things that we used to say instead of just saying they died, right? Because I’m the same thing with talking about bodies, you know, that we say vagina, penis, and things like that so there’s no confusion. So being clear about someone dying, and that means that their body no longer works, that they will not be coming back. 

And that permanence is important, because up until 10, they have that magical thinking. So if they believe in Santa, then they have that magical thinking. So they imagine things, right. So they imagine that if I was just good enough, or if I do this, then they’ll come back. And sometimes we don’t know that they’re doing this. So we do have to be clear that their body is no longer working, that they were fighting for a long time, and then they died. 

So some people do bring religion into it, but you also want to be mindful that you are explaining the permanence. If you’re bringing religion into it, you have to explain the permanence. Because I remember one of my colleagues was dealing with a child, and his sister died. And everybody just said, “well, she went to heaven, went to a better place, she’s up with so and so.” And he wanted to get into an airplane to go up to heaven, because heavens up in the clouds, right? So he felt like he could go and visit; he didn’t understand the permanence of that. And I think a lot of this is that we try to throw the butterflies and fairies at children, we’re trying to protect them. We’re trying to make it a magical thing that someone died, it’s not a big deal. And that’s our own distress. We can’t tolerate our distress, it’s uncomfortable, and then we can’t tolerate our child’s distress. So we throw butterflies and fairies at things, right? Just like when somebody dies, “don’t worry about it, you’re okay.” But I am worried about it. And I have a right to cry. But this crying is making you uncomfortable. 

How many times have you been around someone and you start crying? And what do we do? We say “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” because we don’t want to upset the other person. But it’s not my job to protect the people around me, because I have emotion. But we are not brought up like this. It’s uncomfortable when somebody cries. “What do I do? Like, do I hug them? This is awkward.” And then and then we apologize. 

So validating your child, acknowledging that it is okay to be sad. You know, “what do you need from me? Do you need a hug? Do you need some space?” Of course you would feel sad, because we’re gonna miss Grandma, or we’re gonna miss our neighbor, or we’re gonna miss her uncle, or whatever that is, and that’s okay. And you can do legacy building things, like writing letters. And I know that people have done that – again, it might be a little bit magical, but it’s also just kind of a nice thing to even wrap it up and send it off in a balloon, kind of giving that away. There’s different ways to do that. But just being mindful when you do those things – does the child feel like it’s going up to heaven, and they’re going to peek through the clouds and grab that balloon, and then they want to try to get up there as well. 

So really that permanence; as they start getting older, they do understand it more, but you still have to talk about that. And then they’ll probably ask for more details. And then you just be mindful as to how much you’re explaining, and how much you’re getting into. And it may also bring up their own concerns. Because what about me dying? What about you dying? You know, that kind of stuff. 

A parent actually reached out to me, this has been a theme lately (I just saw somebody posting as well about death and dying on Instagram toda), and she said her four year old was really upset, and didn’t want to die. The child had just learned about Terry Fox. So the parent didn’t know what to do. So it’s like “where did this come from?” All of a sudden they’re crying, and this is a sensitive child, and they were thinking about their own death. So what does this mean for me? 

And sometimes it is getting things checked out. My husband lost his brother when he was 39, and all the children got their hearts checked – it was an aortic valve that ruptured, so it was a problem from birth. It could be something that my kids might have, so then we got those things checked out. And sometimes we do need to do those things, and be more cautious – and older children will start asking those questions and you can explore those things and talk about them. “I don’t know the answer for this but we will find out,” that kind of stuff.

Yeah, I really like how you mentioned taking those extra steps for perhaps assessments and tests. And it can be really reassuring, and help bring more understanding to the situation and how the different pieces work together.

Exactly. Yeah, for sure.

So, a little bit more about when kids do start to put it on themselves, and have the fear of death for either themselves or their parents, which is something I’ve seen as a bit of a common theme.

It is a common theme, whether or not there is a death and dying situation. Because they worry, and some children are more anxious, and so these things do stick in their mind. Some children actually have an issue with separation anxiety, past the age of five, that is actually starting to be developmentally inappropriate. So when you’ve got children that do not want to leave you, they’re worried about you, it can be an issue. And actually, the thing is to separate yourself from them more, but in smaller steps, and then talk about it; where’s the proof to say that something bad is going to happen? We can’t promise them that nothing bad is gonna happen, however, if you worry about me all day at school, does that keep me safe? 

And sometimes we’ll even say to a child, “so you feel like your mom is not going to come back? Do you feel like she’s not very capable? Like, do you feel like she doesn’t know how to cross the street, or she’s not a safe driver?” And they’re like, “well, no, no.” So kind of doing that detective thinking, where’s the proof. And then if there is proof, you can validate that, say, “yes, this did happen, our neighbor did die in a car accident, and I can see why you would be really nervous.” But also saying “I’m going to stay safe, I’ve never gotten into a car accident,” and kind of talk about that. If there’s been a loss, allow them to be a little clingier, that’s okay. But then eventually, if it continues, that’s when we would get more concerned. But if it’s not been because of a loss, then we do want to do a little bit of that separation, and work on that. But it is tough. 

And then the other piece is “what is the plan.” And I feel like that is actually where children struggle, is with a plan. Especially when there’s a divorce or separation situation, and they don’t want to live at the other parents house. They worry about the other parent, right? “So if you die, or something happens to me, where do I go? Where am I living? I really like my house, will my pet be coming with me?” These are the things that they think about. But we don’t talk about that. We’re just like, “it’s fine, everything’s gonna be okay, no big deal.” But we actually have to talk to them about it, and say, “let’s validate that this is a normal thing. And that you would be staying at the parents house. If this is a concern, let’s talk about this.” Now this might be a bigger thing that you do need to look into. Or that you’re gonna be living with your aunt, you’re going to be living here, like those kinds of things, right? And really having those conversations, because we always just are like, “it’s no big deal. Don’t worry about it, don’t worry about it, don’t worry about it.” That’s very invalidating. And when we can come up with a plan to say, “I actually don’t know,” or “where would you like to live? Or this is the plan.” It actually takes a lot of that stress away. That’s what I’ve seen. 

And then you also asked about the kids, because the kids, that’s another piece too. And I like the book Lifetimes. It has beautiful illustrations, and it’s a very simple story. It is just about how everything has the time. So you know, even a leaf, or an ant – everything has a lifetime. And that majority of people that die are old. Right? So where is the proof? And again, going back to that detective thinking, because this is an anxious child that is worried that they’re going to die, right? Where is the proof to say that your body is not strong, or that your body is not healthy? And even if you have a child with chronic illness, that is a valid thing for them to be worried about. But your diabetes, we’re taking care of your carb intake, we’re taking care of your insulin. We’re going to see the doctor, and you’re so active in your activity, and playing sports is really really keeping your body healthy. But have those conversations with your children when they’re asking them, and don’t just put it off and say, “don’t worry about it.”

Yeah, it really comes down to the conversations and the validating. And I like how you touched on the investigative side of it. That’s something I’ve actually been learning from my business coach, is if you’re worried about something, rather than just the positive change of mindset, it can be really helpful to dive into it, dive into the darker side and your worries and your anxieties and explore it. And worst case scenario, you’re worried about something? Okay, well, what would that lead to? What would come from that, what could cause it? And when you really dive deep into that, you tend to realize it’s not actually as scary or as worrisome. 

Exactly. It’s interesting that you say that, because today my 16 year old is home, doing work from home, and I don’t know what she’s working on, but they had to kind of talk about adversity and life and bullying, and so she had to answer. So I’m hearing her answer, and she said that her mom (me) has taught her the phrase, “what’s the worst thing that’s going to happen?” And then really doing some detective thinking or some problem solving around that. 

And I think it’s the same thing for us as adults. What’s the worst thing that’s going to happen if I open this book up about death and dying and read it with my child? They’re gonna ask me questions, they may be a little bit worried. But at least I can have these conversations – because sometimes what happens is that children become very silent. And they worry, and they don’t say anything, and they’re imagining worse things than what is really going to happen. And then when we don’t talk about it, or they’ve overheard us – and that’s another thing, to be mindful of what you’re saying, and who you’re saying it to, because they can overhear you. They can sense your stress, they can sense what’s going on with you, and then you don’t talk about it. So it must be really bad.

That’s important, too. Now, you had mentioned a little bit about the legacy thing. Can we dive into that a little bit more?

Sure! Yeah, so legacy building can be many different things. And it depends on who this family member is, how you want to remember them, if it’s a friend. You can kind of decide. I remember one family I worked with, dad had cancer for many years, and actually somehow, with the medication and everything, lived longer than he thought he was going to, so had a little more time. It was hard, because he was so ill that the child really couldn’t play with dad, and didn’t really know him as a healthy dad. And that was really hard on the family, and on him, because he was alive and still feeling like he was missing milestones, but was very open to legacy building. And what he did is he wrote letters to his daughter for milestone things, he bought gifts for sweet 16 and different things. So he did some really cool things that way. 

So it can be letter writing, it could be planting a tree or a rosebush. It could be donating things in memory of people. It could be asking certain questions, learning about that person, and things that you want to share with them, and they want to share back with you. So does that look like you have a communication book, a letter series that you would write, questions that I want to know about you, my favorite memories with you, recording their voice, maybe they’re doing little videos as well that can be archived. With our technology now it’s so much better than back in the day, so we can really do those things. Molds are another big thing – I know we would do that a lot with babies and with children, we would mold their hands. So they would have the mold of their feet or their hands, sometimes even holding hands, mom and baby would be holding hands. Just those types of things where you can keep their memory alive. 

And what does that look like? Sometimes you do those runs for cancer or runs for brain injury or whatever, and you keep their memory alive. It could be donating somewhere, volunteering your time. So it’s stuff that you can do beforehand, and it’s also things to keep their memory alive. Because that is one thing that I think is so hard for some people, is that they want to keep that memory alive, they want to keep the pictures up, they want to talk about that person. And other people find this too hard, so they just pack it away, and put it away. And everybody needs to do things differently. But there are things that you can do on a regular basis that you’re not just pushing on, but you’re allowing yourself to have those memories. Because the pain is always going to be there. In ebbs and flows, it may lighten a little bit, but yeah, you can’t just forget someone, right? You want to keep them alive, you want to keep them alive in your heart and in your mind. And what that looks like for you as a family is very different. But opening yourself up to those opportunities. 

Those are so many great ideas, and can really bring a lot of comfort and closure at the time as well.

Absolutely, yeah. And of course reading a letter from dad on your Sweet 16 and getting that locket – are you going to be teary? Is it going to bring up more emotion? Absolutely it will. But what a beautiful thing to get a letter and open it up on your 16th birthday when dad’s been dead for five or ten years. And now I have a piece of him with me.

That’s beautiful. What about resources for different families going through this and looking for more help, or book lists, or things like that. Do you have go-to places you refer people?

So I mean, there is Bereaved Families of Ontario – I should have probably prepared this a little bit better. But what I can do is look into a few places. Again, I am in Ontario, so my resources may be a little bit different. There are some not for profit places that are amazing. There’s a really cool place within an hour of where I am, where they have a therapy room, but it’s like an art room where you can just kind of do all kinds of things, make a mess of the place. 

And they have things for supporting siblings, because the other thing too is, depending on what’s going on, if your child is ill, a lot of times the sibling that’s left alive or that is healthy – unfortunately, sometimes they get kind of pushed aside, because focus is on the ill child, then you’re a parent grieving. And then sometimes parents have a hard time because they resent this child that’s alive, right? Which you think is like, “well, that’s backwards, you should be grateful that you have a child that’s alive,” but they feel resentful, like “why couldn’t the other child be alive too?” So it’s a lot of getting your own therapy, but also for siblings. 

And then there’s a place in Cambridge that’s absolutely gorgeous. And again, I’m just not getting these names, so I will create a list for you. But it’s so beautiful, and we’ve been there, we’ve done retreats there, and they lost a daughter, and that’s why they created this space. And you can walk on the grounds, you can be part of therapy sessions, group sessions, you can go there and rent space and be there for a little bit of time. 

It just depends on what you’re looking for. There can be far more formalized therapy, like going to see a social worker or a grief counselor, group therapy, there’s support groups, which are different as well. Support groups are run differently than a therapy group. So I think it’s just finding something that’s going to work for you. And it’s working through that pain and that emotion, and knowing that reaching out for help may be an ongoing thing, that it’s not just like gonna be wrapped up. And you may not be ready to go and do that right away. But books and resources are fantastic, while you’re going through things, to explain things, especially to children. Alan Wolfelt is an amazing resource. He started writing about death and dying I think when he was 18 or 19. And just amazing. I saw him speak and he really normalized the fact that having a funeral, having a wake, all that stuff is necessary. We are having a lot of these celebrations of life. And it’s “don’t cry, let’s celebrate, they had a great life,” all that kind of stuff. And it doesn’t allow us to grieve. And he told this story of a father and mother talking, and what music she wanted to have there. And, and he’s like “that song, mom, it’s really sad. It’s gonna make us sad.” And she’s like “well, I should hope so! It’s going to be my funeral!”

But it was interesting, and I remember this was a few months after my grandmother had died. And my grandmother dying is probably one of the hardest deaths – I felt depressed, it feels like depression after someone has died, and you don’t feel like doing anything. And what Dr. Wolfelt says is that if you don’t deal with your emotion, it does look like depression, but it’s actually grief that we haven’t processed. So for years, we feel like we’re depressed, but it’s because the grief hasn’t been processed. So what he was talking about, I could resonate with. And he said those ceremonies, and the music, and things like that, bring up the emotion. 

And those are older cultural things. I’m Polish, and I lost my grandmother, and at the Polish church, they have this organ music and it’s like this death march afterwards – it doesn’t matter if you don’t know the person, it just evokes emotion in you. And I was like, “we cannot have that music,” and I tried. And I remember the funeral director was trying to get rid of that song. And of course the organist is like, “absolutely not, that’s tradition.” I just thought they were just being difficult. But it was okay. It was okay to have that emotion. And I took time off of work. And I’m surrounded by clinicians at my day job. And I remember going to work a day or two after my grandmother died. Because we had to pack up, we were moving buildings, and everybody looked at me and thought, “why are you here? Like, give yourself a break, all these things we will take care of, we will pack your stuff up.” And I was like, “what am I doing? I do need to take my foot off the gas a little bit.” And I’m in the profession. I’m a mental health professional. And I felt like I needed to push through. Because this is how we cope. We just block it all out. So yeah, I hope I answered that question I kind of went on.

We went a little sideways, but I think it was really helpful, and I wanted to touch on those. And you’ll get a little bit of a list together and I can do some digging and we’ll include it in the show notes. Do you only work with people locally, or do you work with people online?

Well, that is the great thing about the internet. I mean, look at how far away we are, right? So yes, I do everything through Zoom. I’m not a clinician, I am a child life specialist so I don’t do any therapy. But I do support parents. So if they are feeling – like I actually had someone recently talking to me about how it started off as sleep (the child was regressing in sleep and wanting to come into the parents bedroom), because they had two deaths. So I kind of drill that down a little bit for parents. It was only one session, because they realized mom lost her grandfather, and she did talk to the child about it but not enough, and she had to go back and have that conversation. And then the dog died, and the child was more upset about the dog dying than the grandfather dying. So it was a little bit conflicting for mom. So she had to go back and have those conversations. And eventually the child started sleeping in her own bed, but she just regressed a little bit, because she needed to be closer to parents because she was worried about the death and dying thing. So she needed to be a little closer. 

So yeah, I do those types of things. I wouldn’t counsel anybody or do therapy, but sometimes I kind of dig a little bit deeper, as far as where is this behavior coming from? What is going on? And then what are those strategies? So yeah, I do one-on-one consultations, I have a Facebook group, I write a blog, and I mean I’m even on TikTok! Yeah, I’m kind of everywhere. But yes, I just work with parents, and I do it through Zoom.

Great, and where can everyone find you?

So at, and I am MomTheManager everywhere. My YouTube is Michelle McVittie, but everything else is MomTheManager, so you can reach out to me, my email is michell[email protected]. And I feel a lot of people like to come into my facebook group called Overworked to Overjoyed. I go live once a week there – they get to know me, and then they can ask questions. And then I can give them quick little tips. And if they need to do more, then we usually have a consultation and kind of go from there.

Great. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me. There’s just been so much helpful information, I really appreciate it.

My pleasure. Thank you for doing this, and thank you for this platform. We need more people like you in the world. So I’m happy to be here.


And that was our lovely conversation with Michelle McVittie! Grief and death can be very hard things to talk about and deal with, especially with children, so we hope that this guide was helpful. Michelle is an amazing woman who does even more amazing work, so make sure to check her out on social media, especially if you are needing help with hard discussions. Also make sure to check out all the resources in our reading notes, and seek help if you need it. As always, thank you for reading!

Reflection Questions

  1. Was there a time in your childhood where you had to deal with death or illness? What was that process like for you? What kind of support do you wish you had? Did you have a good takeaway that you can implement when it’s needed?
  2. How can you start preparing your children now by incorporating these kinds of conversations into your everyday?
  3. What was your biggest takeaway when it comes to how to talk to your kids when their inevitably is a death or illness in the family?
  4. When a death or illness comes up how will you try to prioritize your overall wellbeing?
  5. What can you do to support a friend or family member who is dealing with death or illness?
  6. Where do you think your child currently fits on the development scale for understanding the permanence of death and the concepts of illnesses?
  7. Have you shied away from these conversations in the past? How do you think you can do things differently when a similar situation arises?
  8. What legacy building ideas resonated with you? What ways can you see yourself doing different legacy building activities in the future?

Thank you so much for joining us for this very important episode on how to talk to kids about death and illness. If you’re reading this when the content goes live please make sure to join us on Thursday October 20th in our UM Club Hangout so we can discuss things further. If you’re reading this at a later date please go ahead and post your thoughts and questions inside the UM Club FB Group or in our Group Chat.