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Talking to Kids About Death with Elena Lister and Michael Schwartzman

This episode is all about how to talk to kids about death. Experts Elena Lister and Michael Schwartzman both have decades of experience working with kids and families, in schools and private practice, to navigate conversations about death, dying and illness. Their book, “Giving Hope: Conversations with Children About Illness, Death, and Loss,” is both a practical how-to guide filled with tangible advice and a north star for open, honest conversations with kids about hard topics. This episode is not just for parents, it’s for anyone with kids in their life – from neighbors to coaches and teachers, aunts and uncles, etc. If you've ever been with a kid in your life and just know there's something big you want to say, and don't know how to say it, this episode is for you.

You can find their book and more about their work at: 


[00:00:00] Sarah Cavanaugh: Hi, I'm Sarah Cavanaugh, and this is Peaceful Exit. Every episode, we explore death, dying, and grief through stories by authors familiar with the topic. Writers are our translators. They take what is inexpressible, impossible to explain, and they translate it into words on a page. 

[00:00:24] My guests today are Elena Lister and Michael Schwartzman, and we're talking about their book, Giving Hope, Conversations with Children About Illness, Death, and Loss. Have you ever been with a kid in your life and just know there's something big you want to say and you don't know how to say it? That was me and I so wish I had this book when my kids were little. 

[00:00:47] As adults many of us are muddling our way through it and figuring it out. And on Peaceful Exit, we talk all the time about normalizing the conversation about death and giving language to our feelings about it. But having an open, evolving conversation about death and life's hardships with your kids might be scary. 

[00:01:06] And it's an amazing gift you can give them. You may feel less than qualified to have this talk. But this book is a North Star and a practical how-to manual. This episode is not just for parents. It's for anyone who has kids in their life. Teachers, coaches, aunts, uncles, neighbors, you name it. Or even taking some of this advice and applying it to your adult relationships. The important thing is, we just need to be having these conversations. 

[00:01:40] Welcome to Peaceful Exit.  

[00:01:42] Michael Schwartzman: Thank you.  

[00:01:43] Sarah Cavanaugh: I'm so glad you're here today.  

Elena Lister: We're glad to be here.  

Sarah Cavanaugh: I so enjoyed your book. How did you two come together to work on this book?  

[00:01:52] Elena Lister: I had been doing this work dealing with death and dying in schools for quite a while, all starting with the death of my daughter when she was six of leukemia, and working with her school, her and her older sister's school, and finding that children had questions. 

[00:02:10] They needed a space to ask questions about death and dying. And yes, maybe they'd be frightened, but they were curious. So I sort of delved into that work because we found people couldn't talk to us when it was happening to us. And I didn't want other people to feel as alone as we had felt about it. And also I just had to make some good come out of her suffering and her death. 

[00:02:38] So I'd been doing this work and Michael was. An amazing psychologist on staff at a school. And we worked together in the trenches for quite a while and found that we had a really easy camaraderie and that we both deeply believed in the need to talk honestly and with compassion to people of all ages about death and dying, the need to face it squarely. 

[00:03:04] And then I got this crazy notion that I wanted to write a book about this.  

[00:03:08] Michael Schwartzman: I, like many people, you know, lived a blessed life where illness and death were kind of like remote and people died when they were old and they were meant to die. And it remained a subject that was always very scary to me. And when she asked me about doing this, it was the last thing I wanted to do. 

[00:03:31] But because it's such an important. And I, you know, I've always thought of Elena as like a superwoman, because to me, one of the major problems with this area is you have to really bolster yourself to be able to think about it. And she's been able to do that, and she's been able to make it a much more, quote, normal thing. 

[00:03:55] Sarah Cavanaugh: Where do you think that comes from?  

[00:03:58] Elena Lister: Well, I had the benefit of something which I think is not too common or wasn't then, and that is that my father, who was also a psychiatrist, early on in my life took it upon himself to emphasize that it was important to face life's harsh realities, and that he was going to be there in it with me and my older sister. 

[00:04:19] And that when there was a death in our family, and there were many of close relatives when I was young, And we would go to it, let's say a funeral at a cemetery. He would take me around to the other gravestones and read what they said with me and note how old that person was when they died, whether they were young or old, I had goldfish as a child. 

[00:04:41] And Mr. Rogers says every four year old should have a goldfish because it gives you the experience of dealing with loss about something that isn't a devastating loss. And I would, under my father's guidance. Take a big matchbox and put my goldfish in there and wrap them in tissues and take them now. 

[00:05:02] Don't tell anybody Central Park and make a little grave for them and have a little ceremony. So I came into the experience of my daughter facing terminal illness already with having been parented to face terminal illness. So if you had asked me a year before my daughter got ill, can you imagine talking to your then five year old daughter and then eight year old daughter about the five year old dying? 

[00:05:29] I would have said, no way. I mean, that's horrifying. It's terrifying. I don't think I can do it. But I think I'm not unique at all. And that when you're in the situation. You have to do what you have to do. And my younger daughter needed answers to questions. And I felt like I could not leave her alone facing what was going on inside her mind. 

[00:05:50] And neither did my husband feel that way and her older sister. So experience does inform what you're capable of doing if you let it.  

[00:05:57] Sarah Cavanaugh: Yeah. My mother died 21 years ago and making meaning out of losing someone who is very close. like your daughter, like my mother. That's what Peaceful Exit is all about. She didn't get what she wanted at the end of her life. 

[00:06:13] She wasn't close to people that she loved. She was in a phase one cancer trial, far away from home. We're all about helping and encouraging people to talk about death. And you both have really come up with such a beautiful book, Giving Hope, to help families in this very, very tangible way, which I so appreciate. 

[00:06:37] Michael Schwartzman: Thank you.  

[00:06:38] Sarah Cavanaugh: So, all the stories, all the language in this book are so helpful, so honest, like, uh, I don't want to see Cousin Mimi, she smells weird. Those are the types of responses parents are nervous about fielding. And tell me a little bit about expecting the unexpected.  

[00:06:57] Michael Schwartzman: What we have found is that There is no one way, there is no the way, there is no right way, it's just the way. 

[00:07:07] And when you can operate under the idea, expecting the unexpected, you can be available to, you know, whichever way, wherever, you know, the experience takes you. You have to fit with it. It won't just fit with you.  

[00:07:25] Elena Lister: Yeah, I think, you know, one of the things we advocate is knowing yourself as well as you possibly can about the questions about death and dying when you're interacting with other people, especially youngsters. 

[00:07:38] Because you can't be steady and sturdy in the room if all of your own noise is in there and you're terrified about what you're talking about. So you really need, as an adult in the room, if you're talking to a child, actually if you're talking to anybody, that you square away your own stuff about this. 

[00:07:55] And we would advocate in talking with a child, that you do the same about your child. What is your child going to be like in response to hearing that Aunt Jane died? So we know they usually keep their feelings in. Okay. So, um, and they usually like to draw in response to emotional things. So, okay, this is what I expect. 

[00:08:16] And then you walk into the room. And of course, children are absolutely wonderful. They totally surprise you all the time. And. Your child does something completely different and it can throw you, unless you go into it with whatever my child brings to this conversation, I'm ready for, because it is what they need to be doing. 

[00:08:37] We think of these conversations as a process, not once. So when you're having a conversation with somebody about a dying person or a death, it's one piece and that's going to evolve. So whatever a child is doing at that moment is what they're doing at that moment about it. And it may not be the same thing they're doing the next morning, or three weeks later, or three years later. 

[00:09:02] Because we believe that the process of dealing with the death of someone close to you continues for the rest of your life. I call grief the gift that keeps on giving.  

[00:09:12] Sarah Cavanaugh: I love that you repeat again and again in the book about self-regulation for parents, for caregivers, for anyone, and giving really specific examples about if you get flooded or you're activated that you just leave the room and come back or that you offer to the child another time to come back and revisit something. 

[00:09:32] Do you mind if I read a passage and just see what comes up for you? Not at all. Please, sure. This kind of encapsulates it for me, and also, like, I have three children. I wish I had this book. When they were small, they're now grown and moved away. Are you both parents? Yes. Yeah, so this is resonating with me on many levels, not just on the conversation about death. 

[00:09:59] The willingness to have a conversation on a difficult topic can be a cornerstone of a parent child relationship. In addition, modeled on the open and honest talks you have had with her over the years, as a child grows into a young adult, she will be able to give time to inner reflection about how she feels and continue these conversations with herself and others. 

[00:10:23] This is a wonderfully positive outcome. This willingness to hold space open for children to ask questions over the course of time and to receive truthful answers is an important kind of communication for parents. One that children notice and one that engenders trust.  

[00:10:43] Michael Schwartzman: I had an experience recently. I met with a family over a recent loss and what was really pouring out from the children. 

[00:10:53] Were questions and questions and questions about the illness, about the treatment, about every little iota. And it was very clear that they were wanting to make sure that they were being told the truth, that they were being given the information that their parents had been operating on and that to make it real and to make it right, they needed all the honesty that could be. 

[00:11:19] The point is. That we look at talking about illness and death as an opportunity for a child to be exposed to something that we know they'll have to deal with, you know, as they grow and as they face different things. And so who's better at doing this than we are, the ones who have brought them into the world and brought them up in the world to create that opportunity, you know, and follow through with them. 

[00:11:46] And then it leads to more and more conversation as you go.  

[00:11:50] Sarah Cavanaugh: Let's talk about the many compelling reasons you give for why you should talk to kids about death. What are some of those reasons why?  

[00:11:59] Elena Lister: One is they know about death already. You're not surprising them with the fact that death happens. They see it all the time. 

[00:12:08] They see a dead worm on the sidewalk. They see the flowers that you bought wilt and die. They see the leaves change colors. So all we're doing when we talk with children about death is creating a space where they know they can talk about it to you. It's not that they don't think about it. And there is this wonderful, wonderful book called Armfuls of Time by Barbara Schwartz. 

[00:12:31] It was a guidebook for me after my daughter died and I was continuing to work with people because they're interviewing children who are terminally ill and they're in the hospital and they would say to the nurse or the doctor, I'm dying, but mommy and daddy aren't telling me about it. So I'm not going to tell them. 

[00:12:52] And therefore, I feel like we don't want to leave the people in our lives alone with that. And then they're processing it all on their own. Who knows what sort of creations they have in their mind about it that then determine how they feel moving forward. So, my then 98 year old mother in law, who died recently, used to say, Pain shared is pain halved. 

[00:13:17] Elena Lister: And so the idea here is that we share things, we share feelings. That's what being connected is all about.  

[00:13:23] Sarah Cavanaugh: I love that. I love that. I'm trying to imagine what it would have been like if my mother had gathered us, I have three siblings, had gathered us in a room and said, I'm dying. Let's have a conversation about it. 

[00:13:35] That would have profoundly changed the trajectory of her illness and her passing and our subsequent communication following that. It would have changed everything.  

[00:13:46] Michael Schwartzman: The part that has to do with being alone I think is like really, really important because we don't want anybody to be alone and we don't want to have to remember them as having been alone. 

[00:13:59] And recently I had to be involved in how a child was understanding, for the complete reason we were concerned that maybe the child was going to hurt somebody. And you could say that the child was using words, but really was not applying the same meaning to those words that we would have. And by hearing what he was saying, I could feel much more comfortable, you know, about where he was at and what he needed to deal with. 

[00:14:26] Elena Lister: I would add, and we are big advocates of using the word “died” because children get confused if you say this person is gone. Or we lost Aunt Jane. That's used in common parlance all the time. I lost my keys and keys can be found again. So what are you communicating to a child that loss is not permanent and death is permanent. 

[00:14:51] We learn how to bring somebody forward with us. We don't believe that people move on after death. We call it moving forward with, and you learn how to integrate it into the very fabric of who you are. Okay. It's what you're doing, Sarah, in carrying forward your experience about your mom. It's what I do about my daughter. 

[00:15:12] It's what Michael does in trying to face the hard stuff. We all find our ways of bringing forward our memories of people that were dear to us. So the paradox is, the more we back off from somebody, let's say when they're dying, the less we have of them after they die. And so the very thing we're fearing, we're actually creating, but if you delve right in, as they say, lean in, you end up with these moments with the person who's dying that are absolutely amazing and beautiful, even if excruciating. 

[00:15:47] But as you say, so, you know, especially your mom's generation, nobody talked about dying. And death, no way. And what I do now with medical students and residents is train them how to talk about death and dying, both within their own lives and with patients, because I didn't get that training. And if you know how you do it in training, And when you become a doctor, you might be able to do the very thing with your mother that probably wasn't done with her, where somebody said, you know, have you thought about having a conversation with your children about what's going on and how do you understand what's going on so that we can help you communicate about what's happening here? 

[00:16:31] And I imagine no doctor did that. So she didn't know how to do it, of course, but we want to raise a generation of people who do know how to do it.  

[00:16:40] Sarah Cavanaugh: I love that. I love that. I was thinking of you as I was reading the term parenting a memory. So if you lose a child, you're still a parent because you're parenting their memory. 

[00:16:50] And that was so beautiful in the book.  

[00:16:52] Elena Lister: When my older daughter went to sleep away camp after her sister died, she was asked if she had any siblings and she said no. And it broke my heart until I, like, gathered myself and realized that it was just too painful for her to tell other kids what had happened, kids who didn't know her before. 

[00:17:09] And now that's different. She now answers differently. As I said, things evolve. But when you ask me, how many children do you have? I say three. One who died of leukemia when she was six. Because I still have her, as you can see, um, right here. So yeah, parenting the memory is how we bring someone forward. 

[00:17:28] Sarah Cavanaugh: I just love that. 

[00:17:30] If my mother had said I had five children, one died of SIDS, that would have made our lives completely different because I didn't know I had a brother until I was 10 years old. So, you know, that completely changed the picture of our family and it would have been lovely to know.  

[00:17:48] Michael Schwartzman: That's right.  

[00:17:49] Sarah Cavanaugh: Yeah.  

[00:17:50] Michael Schwartzman: That's right. 

[00:17:50] But it also involves facing certain things. 100%. That I guess it needs the scaffolding, it needs the conversation, it needs the support.  

[00:18:00] Sarah Cavanaugh: Well, and like you said, it was a generation where people didn't talk about hard things. I would find a book on my bed about some subject that was a hard subject to talk about, but it would just show up. 

[00:18:12] Wow. Yeah. Yeah. So what do you tell a parent who's terrified of even speaking the words? You can tell they're activated, they have some kind of response. They're in the room with the kid and they're there, but it's like, how do you get the words out? What do you recommend for the parent who's terrified?  

[00:18:32] Michael Schwartzman: If they're saying something to me or they're saying something to Elena about being terrified, they're way ahead of the ballgame because they're able to identify the fact that they're terrified. 

[00:18:47] You know, one of the points that we make, which We've referred to already. Know yourself. You're terrified. You're terrified. And then it's going to take you time because you're going to have to get through whatever excuses you're giving yourself, whatever rationalizations you're giving yourself. You're going to have to give yourself time to sort of like collect yourself and remember the purpose. 

[00:19:14] And you will remember the purpose that you have, which is to bring your child, your children into it. So looking at it from the other side, what do you tell? The parent who's terrified is you tell them it's fine and important for them to take their time and then you bring them into what it means for their child to get to learn from them what's actually happening. 

[00:19:42] The book is meant as a companion to each of these kinds of steps because we realize that you can become brave and then you can become terrified again. There are so many bends in the road you need to collect yourself. Basically, what we would say is this is completely understandable, and we mean to help you through those feelings so that you can find the other feelings you're going to bring to bear on this matter. 

[00:20:15] Elena Lister: I love that. The main thing I could think of adding is that I'm curious about what they're terrified of, because they may be terrified of facing death within themselves. Their own mortality, let's say they aren't the person who's dying. They may be terrified and reliving experiences of loss they had in the past that they hadn't processed and, or they may be terrified of what their child is going to do and will they be able to handle their child's reaction. 

[00:20:49] So when you unpack that and give it all time, It's a little less scary. So just the process of facing it with somebody makes it a little less scary. And as Michael was saying, okay, so it's scary and being brave isn't not being scared, it's doing things even though you're scared.  

[00:21:10] Sarah Cavanaugh: Yeah. I love what you said about learning from the parent or caregiver, trusted adult versus the internet. 

[00:21:19] Do you find that's a barrier? Is there any coaching you do around if my kids addicted to screens? Because you do recommend we put aside our screens, put aside the phones, you sit together. You know, what happens if your kid is reluctant to do that?  

[00:21:37] Michael Schwartzman: I mean, we talk about, you know, setting up a scene where you're going to have a conversation with as little distraction available as possible. 

[00:21:48] We also recognize that people need distraction from the intensity of what it is that they're discovering, what it is that they're talking about. So we look at conversations as ongoing conversations with starts and stops and starts and stops. The internet is a place where there's all kinds of information available, so we're always very wary of that. 

[00:22:14] I mean, one, one thing that I've been thinking about recently, just in terms of gathering information, you know, as you go through a process and you have a doctor versus you have friends who tell you all kinds of things, the internet tells you all kinds of things. Everybody's got to pick their style. You know, my style would be more to, I just want to hear what my doctor says. 

[00:22:39] I mean, I know I'm going to hear what my wife says, and I'm glad to hear that, but you have to be very careful that you're not hearing everything. You're hearing a cultivated kind of response that makes it easier for you to break it down into something that you can use as you understand. What's going on? 

[00:23:00] And this is what you're passing to your child.  

[00:23:04] Elena Lister: Many of my teenage patients say to me, my parents always want to have hard conversations in the car. And what is that? You know, because, you know, as soon as we get in the car, they, you know, I've been wanting to talk to you about, or, and I hate it. I hate it. I don't want to take car rides with them anymore. 

[00:23:25] And as a parent, I understand that. Your child is captive. They're not going any place. They're sitting with you. You may notice a lot of teenagers have headphones in for a reason. So for a youngster who does not want to have the conversation, I'm interested in why they don't want to let go of their screen. 

[00:23:47] Say, okay, I recognize that you don't want to let go of your screens and you want to rely on the internet, but we're a family and this is the way we do it. So what would make it easier for you to participate with us? Or how many minutes can you tolerate being with us to discuss this before you want to take a break and go do your things on the internet about it? 

[00:24:10] So the obstacles are things to work with. They're not things to just barrel through or to avoid. And the other thing is when I'm working with adults, I often ask them, are your children looking on the internet for information? I had a parent who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. which is a very poor prognosis in general, and had children who were in their teens. 

[00:24:38] And I asked, have you asked them if they're looking into this on the internet? And they hadn't. And meanwhile, a teenager is finding out all sorts of stuff on the internet that could be both inaccurate, terrifying, incomplete. Or real. But if your child is doing that, you know, if you find stuff on the internet, I know you're going to want to look, it would be great if you'd come to me with it. 

[00:25:01] Cause then we can sort it out together and I can tell you to my best understanding what about what you're reading is true and what isn't. And maybe we can find other sources if we think some of it isn't true. And I can show you why I think that it isn't true. The main thing is anything is something to talk about. 

[00:25:20] Sarah Cavanaugh: I love that. Love that. One of the things that resonated most with me in your book is when you talk about the impact of a child dies before that sibling is born. And I think that's because of my experience with Matthew. My parents wanted four children and their fourth, Matthew, died of SIDS and so they got immediately pregnant with me before they'd processed their grief. 

[00:25:49] and really didn't have the language. We talk a lot in Peaceful Exit about language, because if we don't have a language around death, it becomes this invisible presence in your life, and I think it really was for my childhood. And as I said before, I didn't know Matthew was my brother until I was 10 years old, and we happened to be at another funeral, and it came up, and I was quite surprised to find out that I had a brother. 

[00:26:16] So even deaths that happen before a kid is born can impact their life.  

[00:26:21] Elena Lister: So we do have a story in the book about a young man whose parents had died. So now it was time to clear out the house and he and siblings are in the attic going through things and come upon a big box that is, you know, triple sealed, open it up to find baby clothing and a birth certificate and all sorts of other little mementos of a sibling who had died. 

[00:26:47] before all the other kids were born that had never been talked about. And it reframed their entire understanding of their parents, their childhood. It gave them compassion for things that they hadn't understood before, and a lot of outrage and a sense of betrayal. Like, how do you trust if there's this big secret that is so formative? 

[00:27:11] That is not being shared. As you noted earlier, Sarah, I mean, it's just too painful. It's understandable why a parent wouldn't want to share about that. Nowadays, we would say you got to try because another thing that often happens is a child senses that something is off and doesn't know why. And so in a way, you're not protecting your child from a harsh reality. 

[00:27:35] You're leaving them sort of confused, like, you know, yeah, everything looks okay, but. One and one is not adding up to two here and something isn't right and I don't know why and that's sometimes more disturbing for a child. So, yeah, things aren't all right because there was a child who died and his name was Matthew and he died before you were born. 

[00:27:56] So, you're not sparing a child by not telling them because they sense that something is wrong.  

[00:28:03] Sarah Cavanaugh: And I understand my parents were in so much pain that they couldn't talk about it. Right.  

[00:28:09] Elena Lister: Yes. But you would now maybe be able to say, could they nowadays find help to talk about it if they recognize that it was awful, and they wanted to try to find a way to do it anyway. 

[00:28:25] Michael Schwartzman: What we try to talk about all over the place is that the things that you don't want to talk about are things to talk about. But you have to, like you were saying before, you have to find the language, you have to find the time, you have to find the headspace and the nerve to be able to bring it up. 

[00:28:47] Sarah Cavanaugh: That's right. So what's your cardinal rule about lying? No  

[00:28:54] Elena Lister: lying. Michael was saying it before, it's tell the truth, nothing but the truth, but not necessarily the whole truth, at least not all at once. So the implication there is that you are going to tell the whole truth, but age appropriately and over time. 

[00:29:13] When it comes to processing a loss, you know, we have a four-year-old version. This happened when you were four. And then you have the nine-year-old version as a child gets older and rethinks things. And then they have a 20-year-old version. And then as that same child with a loss when they were four, you know, is thinking it over when they're 40 and when they're 60 and when they're 80. 

[00:29:34] Again, just, you know, reinforcing the fact that it's a process.  

[00:29:39] Sarah Cavanaugh: So interesting, it's kind of a balance between wanting to protect your kids from hard stuff and telling them the truth in a way that's age appropriate. I love when you focused on the organ, like the lungs stopped working. That was it, right? 

[00:29:53] That's all they need to know. They don't need to know the whole context of what happened. You give very, very practical advice. 

[00:29:58] Michael Schwartzman: And that's also why it's very important to listen to what they're saying, because we find so often that we might have a thought, you know, that would connect with what's coming out. 

[00:30:10] And then you find out, well, what did you mean by that? And they say something is reflective of how they were thinking about it, which is different from the way you're thinking about it.  

[00:30:20] Elena Lister: A hundred percent. It's so important to communicate when someone has a terminal illness. Children should be given that opportunity to visit or to, if they can't, if they don't feel up to visiting, to like write a letter or draw a picture with preparation. 

[00:30:37] Elena Lister: Don't just wait. So I think of when someone is dying, I think of it as the gift of time because I mean, we're all dying, but we don't like to think about that. And any of us could go at any time, but when someone is known to be terminally ill, they've been given a concrete timeframe for the duration of their life. 

[00:31:02] And what that means is that they can say in the spirit, I'm going to live every moment as fully as I can until I can't. And we all should live that way, but we don't. But when you are facing dying, you might. And so the gift of time also means that the people in your life have the opportunity to say the things that they want to say, to make amends for the things that they, you know, might've said that they regret saying. 

[00:31:31] And there's a lot less quote unquote baggage after someone dies. It still hurts, like, it's not that it prevents the pain, but it allows a gradual process, if that can happen, and sort of a, a way of integrating it. And as I was saying earlier, having even more of the person to hold on to after they go, but it does mean adapting to, if it's a child or an adult, what can they tolerate? 

[00:32:02] So if you're taking a child to visit a sick person in the hospital, you have a lot of detail to explain. They're going to have this thing in their arm and they're going to have tubes in their nose. And this is what it's going to be like. And why don't we bring some puzzles and a book so that, and they can just sit on the side and play. 

[00:32:20] There's no expectation of what they need to do. And if they say, no, no, no, no, no. Okay. Is there something you'd like me to tell that person for you? Or do you want to write a card with me? And so, cause there are a lot of different ways to connect. Again, we're not about forcing in any way, but just providing as facilitating as much as possible contact about a dying process. 

[00:32:45] Sarah Cavanaugh: There's a great story in your book about your daughter at the end of her life, about how your family kept living life to its fullest. Would you mind sharing that story? 

[00:32:58] Elena Lister: My daughter, who was dying because she knew she was dying, was able to say what she wanted to do with the time that she had left. And we didn't know how long it was going to be, but we talked with her about the fact it was probably going to be a bunch of months. 

[00:33:13] And, um, She wanted to learn to read because she'd been too ill to go to school after she was four and we got a home teacher And she learned to read and one of my most precious videos of her is her reading allowed for the first time that she was an honorary member of the land of Oz. And she had this card that she had gotten and she was able to read what it said. 

[00:33:40] Elena Lister: And the other was that friends would come over and they would expect to walk into a house that was very somber and that we'd all be depressed and probably crying. And instead, my friend came in and my younger daughter was watching a Disney moving and laughing on the couch. And her older sister was sitting next to her and drawing and also kind of hugging her at times. 

[00:34:01] And I was making chocolate chip cookies and it was like, wait a minute, this looks like life. And yeah, you live until you die. I love that. We took her to the movies. We went to a ceramics studio because she said she wanted to be able to make some things before she died. It was about living. It wasn't about her dying, living, knowing she was dying, but living to the most. 

[00:34:28] Sarah Cavanaugh: Love that. Love that. Children grieve differently than adults. Um, maybe Michael, you could talk a little bit about asynchronous grieving. How would you define that? What does that mean?  

[00:34:41] Michael Schwartzman: I think that when we were writing what we mean by asynchronous means that A parent might grieve their way and a child will grieve in their way. 

[00:34:54] I think we give the example of a scene during a, uh, church service where the adults are all very serious and, you know, listening to the priest and the children are running around at the same time and playing and being together in their play. We try to talk as much as we can about a parent permitting a child to be as they're going to be in spite of the way that the parent might be feeling. 

[00:35:29] Now, it might mean that the parent has to get away from the child, but there's nothing wrong with a child. getting lost in their play. It doesn't mean disrespect. It doesn't mean, you know, that they're not aware or understanding. It means that they're getting close to it in the way that they can get close to it, which also might mean stepping away from it. 

[00:35:49] And that a parent recognizing that a child can be grieving in their own way as they grieve in their way, you know, leave space for both.  

[00:36:00] Sarah Cavanaugh: I love the term dosing grief.  

[00:36:02] Michael Schwartzman: We all do that in the sense that We can tolerate only so much. So when you dose it, you're sort of like letting it in and then you're taking yourself away and then you're letting it in. 

[00:36:17] And you know, the fact that you're letting it in over time, it all catches up and you get to do your grief and you know, your mourning.  

[00:36:27] Sarah Cavanaugh: Yeah. And I love the idea of, it's almost like you're letting a little air out of the tires, you know, if you want a different metaphor, but it's not all at once. Yeah. And it's not holding back. 

[00:36:38] It's not like burying it. You're not, you know, cause that ends up being very unhealthy. That's people don't process their grief. And so one thing I, I love talking to authors because they have metabolized that grief and they have written about it and they have processed it and writing is such a beautiful way of doing that. 

[00:36:59] So how can we prepare a kid to attend a funeral? You touched on it a little bit, but. It sort of reminds me of my kids first day of kindergarten when they recommended we take a picture of the bus and a picture of the door of the preschool and a picture of their teacher, and we kind of like walk through what's going to happen today. 

[00:37:19] Elena Lister: And yeah, I mean, I think what's frightening for kids and for all of us is when things are unpredictable. So if they're going to experience something new, like a funeral, which is already emotionally so fraught, it would be our recommendation that you do as much as you can. to do what you were just describing about the first day of school, which is describe for a child exactly what's going to happen. 

[00:37:44] You're going to be wearing that dark colored dress that you have or those pants or whatever. And I'm going to be kind of in pretty formal clothing and this person will be there and that person will be there and probably a lot of people you don't know and people will get up and talk about Aunt Jane and you'll hear things that you didn't know before you hear things that you did know. 

[00:38:04] I'm going to get up and speak, you know, whatever it is. And this is difficult for people often. If this is true, there will be a casket. It's called a casket. And the person who died, their body is in that, and that will be often at the front of the room. And sometimes people are invited to go over to it, um, at some point during the service. 

[00:38:27] And you have a choice of whether or not you want to go. And I think I might want to go, but if you don't want to, you. Uncle Bob can sit with you while I do and, you know, and so on. And if a child says, no way, I am not going to this. You know, you hopefully give it a little time. Well, why don't we talk about it later? 

[00:38:48] You don't need to make your absolute decision. But if at the end of the day, it seems like it is more painful for the child to go than not to go, and we have reasons why we think it is a good thing to do, then you say, okay, and what can I bring to the funeral or the service so that you're present in some way, and maybe you want to maybe write a note that Uncle Bob could read aloud for you. 

[00:39:13] And even if you're not there, and even if you don't do that, everybody knows that you loved Aunt Jane and that. This is just not your moment for participating. No guilt.  

[00:39:24] Sarah Cavanaugh: I love that you're using the name Jane. That was my mother's name.  

[00:39:28] Elena Lister: Oh, really? Oh. Aw. For my daughter, I loved it when people mentioned her name, no matter what. Just say it as often as you can so I can truly relate to that. 

[00:39:39] Sarah Cavanaugh: So what about death in the abstract? So it's not your family. It's not an immediate community member. How do we talk to kids about COVID, about gun violence in schools, et cetera? It feels like it's sort of a tsunami of death and violence right now. 

[00:39:59] And I think a lot of parents are overwhelmed by it.  

[00:40:03] Michael Schwartzman: You know, we deal with that all the time in the work that we do in schools. And these are questions that come up all the time. I mean, in fact, in the school that I work in, we're now running drills. If a stranger came in and there was a fear about there being a gun violence. 

[00:40:23] So we run a drill for that. And we actually have to repair some children because they've had experiences in the past. Where, you know, it's related to a gun and we want to make sure that nobody thinks it's real. On the other hand, we need for them to be prepared in the event that it were to be real. It's very, very important just given the word that you use where, you know, a parent can feel overwhelmed themselves. 

[00:40:53] In rendering the news that we always start with, you know, you have to take care of yourself first. You have to work it out so that, you know, you've resolved a kind of like quiet from inside so that you can talk in a reasonable voice and you can listen to what your child might be afraid of and not be like someone leading the witness. 

[00:41:18] You want to hear what they. are saying. You're breaking the news and you're telling them in some kind of reasonable way, trending towards, you know, a protection, I would say, remembering that there's more than one opportunity. You know, you see how they react. And we, we tend to suggest that you always end with, so what does that mean to you? 

[00:41:42] Or how does that sound to you? Or can you say back to me what you heard me say? So that everybody is very clear, you know, You know, on the dimensions of what, you know, are being talked about. And then it's all in the conversation after that.  

[00:41:57] Elena Lister: Yeah, I think that we quote Mr. Rogers sometimes because we're fond of him and he says, look to the helpers. 

[00:42:06] So when you're delivering really rough social news to a child. You want to create a way, as Michael was saying, how do you feel safe at all in a basically unsafe world? And that is to recognize that while horrible things are happening, good things are happening at the same time. So you mentioned COVID, Sarah. 

[00:42:26] Yes, there are many deaths from COVID and there are all these first responders who have been stepping up and saving lives. And. Going right in and, you know, and doctors working on how to create vaccines and so on. So you're not flooding them with all the good, you know, but really rainbows and unicorns. 

[00:42:44] It's just, there's that horror and also, and the and also is really important. And then the other thing is that if you're upset, we don't imagine any adults going to be able to be completely not upset. How do we talk about it, Michael? You stay sort of two steps less upset than you're a child. We don't. 

[00:43:05] That there's something measured. It's not that you can't show emotion at all, but that you say, you know, we're going to sit down and let's have a conversation. There was a shooting at a school, for example, and 20 children died. And you're teary. How could you not be? So give a second to pause and then further, you know, so do you have any questions about that or what else have you heard? 

[00:43:29] Because usually kids know before you do. So the idea is to create a space for their emotion, contain your emotion once you understand it, and make sure they see the whole diversity of the world.  

[00:43:45] Sarah Cavanaugh: Yeah, one of my guests, Mira Ptacin, actually invented a ritual around Halloween because there had been a shooting nearby just before Halloween. 

[00:43:56] And instead of just letting the kids go collect candy, which seemed like not acknowledging this thing that happened, Mira Ptacin you know, they gathered around and had a primal scream. And then they wrote things that they were afraid of and put it in the fire. And it was just a wonderful way. I think the importance of ritual ceremony, art for kids, you mentioned creative arts and for adults actually to process all of this. 

[00:44:22] Elena Lister: What if a child says, will you die or am I going to die? And that those are the kinds of conversations where you feel you're in the headlights and like, you want to tell you, no, no, I'm never going to die. But of course you are, and you can't, I mean, in our belief, the way to build trust in a relationship, lie to them about it. 

[00:44:42] So what can you say? We would advocate something like, if this can be true, I take very good care of my health. I go to the doctor, I take the medicines I'm supposed to take. And I expect to live a very long time. And then a child who really needs to know more will say, okay, fine. But will you die? They're not going to settle for just that. 

[00:45:09] And in that case, you have to answer, I think. And one answer we propose would be, yes, one day I will die, but you will be older and you will be ready. And you will not be alone. And while not all of those are true, most of them might be. And so it feels fair to me and it's a comfort to a child, but it doesn't avoid the reality. 

[00:45:36] Michael Schwartzman: You know, one of the essential parts of being a parent is that we raise our children to leave us, and that doesn't mean through death. But it means that whatever we do with them becomes part of who they are, or maybe not, um, for better and for worse, and, and they go off with what they have to make life on their own, which is really our major purpose. 

[00:46:04] So we, we look at how this unfolds over childhood as a way of conveying something that we want them to have. One of the things that we've always found is that somehow when you tell a child something that you know, it makes it more real. And that might cause a parent to want to back away from it. because seeing it through their eyes is just making it more unbearable. 

[00:46:35] On the other hand, when you think about what you're trying to build up, that is the moment where you try to find the language that's going to make that work.  

[00:46:45] Sarah Cavanaugh: I love that. You're making me think of my kids who are in their 20s and part of Peaceful Exit is really preparing ourselves for our own end of life and making decisions about it and sharing those decisions with others. 

[00:46:57] But my kids want to run from the room, and I think it's just on top of everything else going on in the world right now.  

[00:47:05] Elena Lister: There's an epidemic of anxiety amongst the younger generation for reasons. It is a very unsafe and unstable world.  

[00:47:14] Sarah Cavanaugh: Yeah. Well, this is my last question to all of my guests. For each one of you, what does a peaceful exit mean to you? 

[00:47:25] Elena Lister: Wow, Sarah. Um, you know, we don't all get to die the way we want to. I have laid the groundwork with Living Will and Health Care Proxy, which I advocate everybody do, and I help people do, to have it that if I'm not able to make decisions for myself, that somebody that I trust will be able to make decisions in consonant with what I wanted. 

[00:47:52] So, to me, it's peaceful to know that. Peaceful to me means And I know this may not be possible, but free of pain and surrounded by people that I love. There's a book called A Year to Live, where they ask people, if you had a year to live, what would you want to do? And many people said, I just want to like be stuck in traffic and go to the bank and do my laundry, all the stuff of usual life. 

[00:48:20] Cause that is life. And I kind of feel the same. I'd like to do life for as long as I can, until I can't. And if I don't have that choice, if I die suddenly, I want to make sure now I've left things for the people that I love so that they can handle my dying. That gives me some peace.  

[00:48:42] Michael Schwartzman: Um, I love that. I've been very fortunate. 

[00:48:46] As I said earlier, death, illness came to older people. So it's been in order. And over writing this book with Elena, you know, I came to think a lot about that the greatest antidote to loss is togetherness and closeness. My mother was 93 when she, um, learned that she had pancreatic cancer and she was gonna, you know, she knew that that was going to be the end, but my mother. 

[00:49:15] Even though she was a very educated, intelligent person, was very responsive to her fears and she always associated pancreatic cancer with, um, death, immediate death. And I know, because we were there when she was told, um, she said, I just want to go to sleep. I just want to go to sleep. For the next number of weeks, she practiced falling asleep, because literally she thought that was going to happen. 

[00:49:41] But she got very good medical care, and she lived another 11 months productively. It was just ironic, and you never are in control of this, but she was lying in bed, the attendant was there, we were at home. My oldest child started to read to her and my daughter, the youngest one, started to accompany him reading to her. 

[00:50:08] And at a certain moment I looked over and my mother seemed not to be breathing and I asked the attendant and the attendant and said, no, she had passed away. So my mother literally got to be read to sleep. And, you know, I think about that. That's a peaceful exit. You didn't get to control it, you didn't know it was gonna happen, but you happened to be close enough, you know, and, and around for it, so you could be a part of it as you look back on it. 

[00:50:40] Sarah Cavanaugh: Wonderful. Wonderful. Well, what a wonderful interview, and it was such an honor to meet you both, and I adore your book.  

[00:50:48] Michael Schwartzman: Thank you.  

[00:50:49] Sarah Cavanaugh: I love the practical nature of it and the examples you use, and I think so many parents will just take it to heart that your voice might be shaking, but it's worth having those hard conversations. 

[00:51:03] Michael Schwartzman: That's a nice way to put it.  

[00:51:07] Sarah Cavanaugh: Thank you for listening to Peaceful Exit. I'm your host, Sarah Cavanaugh. You can learn more about this podcast at And you can find me on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram @APeacefulExit. If you enjoyed this episode, please let us know. You can rate and review this show on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. 

[00:51:30] This episode was produced by the amazing team at Larj Media. You can find them at The Peaceful Exit team includes my producer, Katy Klein, and editor, Corinne Kuehlthau. Our sound engineer is Shawn Simmons. Tina Nole is our senior producer, and Syd Gladu provides additional production and social media support. 

[00:51:54] Special thanks to Ricardo Russell for the original music throughout this podcast. As always, thanks for listening. I'm Sarah Cavanaugh, and this is Peaceful Exit. 


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