Helping kids witness death – Sarah Kerr – decorating casket

Helping kids deal with death

In Children and Family, Insight and Self Awareness by Sarah KerrLeave a Comment

Birth and death are two gates – we enter through one, and leave through the other

I recently did a euthanising ceremony for Artie, a family’s beloved cat. The vet came to the house, so the whole family (including Panther, the other cat) could be part of it. It was both very sad, and very beautiful.

This was the kids’ first experience with death, and their parents wanted it to be normal, safe, and un-confusing. They had prepped the kids well, but still had to work to keep what was happening real. When the very kind vet said, “And then the medicine will put him to sleep.” Rachel, the mum, was quick to rephrase it as, “He’s going to be injected with a chemical that will make his heart stop. He’s going to die. He’ll be dead.”

Kids are so literal

They need clear and simple explanations, otherwise their imaginations can run wild and make things worse than they really are. Euphemisms are lost on them, and can send a message that there is something wrong about what’s happening. As well-intentioned as it was, the vet’s statement could easily have led the kids to be afraid of medicine, or of going to sleep.

Before I arrived, I asked the kids to create a sacred space for the ceremony, and an ancestor altar with photos of people and pets in their family who had already died. During the ceremony, I shared an understanding of death being a journey across a river, from the Village of the Living to the Village of the Ancestors. By assembling the Village of the Ancestors on the altar, it gave the kids a way to understand where Artie was going. He would still be in the family, but just in a different part of it. When they think of their own deaths, they’ll know that they, too, will be safe in that other part of the village, and that they’ll be remembered by those on this side.

Helping kids witness death – Sarah Kerr – graveyard

Passing the talking stone

The vet gave a first injection of an anaesthetic and, as Artie relaxed and fell unconscious, we passed a talking stone around the circle, giving each person a chance to speak to Artie. The first round was for “Thank you”, then “I love you”, and then finally “Goodbye”. Panther sat close to Artie, and it looked like he was giving his goodbyes too.

The kids didn’t want to watch the second injection, so I went downstairs with them and described what was happening. Upstairs, Rachel and her husband held Artie as he died. Because I was holding the larger space and looking after the kids, Mum and Dad could really let their feelings move, without having to keep things together to be parents.

When Artie was dead, we put his body in the beautiful box and the kids came back upstairs. As soon as Artie was settled, Panther jumped in with him and started to nuzzle his body and head bump him. Our pets are part of the family, and Panther made it abundantly clear that they bond and grieve, just like the rest of us.

A last goodbye

Helping kids witness death – Sarah Kerr – cat in box

Finally we took Panther out of the box, and did a last ceremony to send Artie across the river. With music and tears, we watched as he was received in his new home.

At this point, the kids were no longer really interested in Artie’s body. They wanted to eat cupcakes and play with my rattles. The process had been clear, and complete, and they had a way to understand it. Rather than being clouded in double-speak, or built up as something dangerous that they needed to be protected from, death was simply something that happens in life: a sad thing, but a normal thing.

As ever, I am so grateful to my clients. Being willing to meet death in a healthier way is a powerful healing act. And when they also allow me to share their stories, that healing reaches even more people.

The role of death doulas, or death midwives

There’s a huge social movement emerging around what I call “doing death better”. It’s driven by the Boomer generation, and it’s happening both inside and outside of mainstream healthcare and funeral institutions (where death has mostly been dealt with until now).

I can’t tell you how many people have told me they thought they’d invented the term death doula or death midwife. They were thinking about how poorly we meet death, and then about how we’re better at meeting birth, and voilà! They put the two together and the idea of a death doula or a death midwife popped into their mind. When the same idea shows up in so many different people, it’s clearly one whose time has come.

I love this story, because it shows that death midwifery grows out of a natural human understanding. At some deep level, we know that birth and death —the two thresholds of life—  are connected, and that they need to be tended with the same kind of sanctity and care.

Like birth, death is a pulling apart.

It is a reorganising of the strands of intimacy and relationship. Like birth, death is a painful process. Like birth, death is part of what makes life possible.

Death doulas help their clients come to terms with the changes in the web of connections that make us who we are. When people are supported to find new ways to be in relationship with each other after a death, then healing and integration is often more accessible.

Just as a birth midwife or doula helps on the way in, a death midwife or doula helps on the way out.

The team at LivingNow are proud to be affiliated with the following events at which Sarah presents. We can offer you a special discount when you use the code LN2019 at registration – details below.


Creating Change for Future Generations

22-25 February, 2019 – Sydney

LivingNow special discount code: LN2019 – save $200

Full price: $1300 (depending on accommodation options) LivingNow price: $1100

A brief solution-oriented process, systemic constellations creates the potential for healing intergenerational traumas and destructive patterns. This may manifest in our daily lives as unresolvable health and relationship issues. A dynamic psychotherapeutic approach that connects us to the strengths of our ancestors and healing on the level of the soul.

With four different streams, this event is suited to therapists, coaches, healthcare workers and everyone on a journey of self-discovery to create healthy relationships.

Through a combination of lectures, experiential processes and immersion into the core principles of systemic constellation work, you will learn the value and application of these principles for your own relationships and well-being. Practitioners will learn how they can enhance their work with clients, groups and organisations.

Connect and belong to an open-hearted community

Presenters and participants from all around the world committed to making a difference.

Gain valuable new skills and insights professionally

Be enriched personally

Participants include a diverse group of mental health professionals, educators, coaches, business owners and many other practitioners in alternative and complementary health practices.


Sarah Kerr PhD, Canada

Melbourne, Feb 16-17. Full price: $295 LivingNow price: $215

Sydney, Mar 1-3. Full price: $420 LivingNow price: $340

LivingNow special discount code: LN2019 – save $80

If someone you love had to face death tomorrow, would you be ready? Are you emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and physically prepared to support them?

If you’re called to assist family, friends, or clients in meeting mortality, you must first become intimate with it yourself. We can’t support others through death if we don’t know the territory ourselves.

When you’re able to meet your death with greater consciousness and clarity, you can be present with others, and support them as they meet theirs.

These teachings are valuable for social workers, therapists, chaplains, emerging and established death doulas, as well as family and community members.

Using ceremony, reflection, meditation, and experiential activities, this workshop will help you:

  • Explore what it means to live with death on your shoulder
  • Develop internal resources to ease your own relationship with death
  • Learn practices to help others navigate the end of life with grace

Her practices support each member of the family to find healing and balance — before, during and after a death.

Sarah’s PhD research explored ways that modern, Western people can restore and re-create meaningful rituals for significant life transitions. She’s been a student of energetic and shamanic healing modalities since 2000.

“My passion is creating spaces where all the emotions that emerge around death and loss can be honoured, so we can integrate difficult experiences and move through them smoothly. When we meet endings in our lives this way, beautiful things become possible, even with the pain.”

About the author

Sarah Kerr

Sarah, based in Canada, has a Masters Degree in Environmental Studies, and a PhD in Transformative Learning. She’s been a long-time student of cross-cultural shamanic healing and nature-based spirituality. She will be presenting a series of events in Australia in Summer 2019.

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