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How to Talk to Kids About Celebrity Deaths

Raised on Promises: Tom Petty, Las Vegas, and Talking to Kids About Death

I told my kids that Tom Petty died this morning. I spent most of the day yesterday wondering if I should talk to them about the massacre in Las Vegas, and if so, how on earth to go about it. My boys are 5 and 6 and still mostly unsullied by the real evils of this world. The oldest asked me if robbers were real the other day, and I saw him lose a shred of innocence as he processed my answer that yes, robbers are real.

I've been unplanned and selfish in how I've talked with my kids about death. All four of their grandparents are still alive, and aside from Mr. Redfish, the goldfish that lived happily in a bowl by the kitchen sink for more than three years, they have not encountered death in their little lives yet. I've told them people don't die until they're at least 100, which I know is stupid at best and harmful at worst, but the truth is that my dad is 74 and I am physically incapable of thinking that thought (you know the one), much less watching my children think that thought. The truth is that no one in that crowd in Las Vegas made it to 100, and some of them were just children. Lying to my kids about death is as much about attempting to protect myself as it is about preserving their innocence as long as I can.

The music of Tom Petty has been an immeasurable gift in my life. I'm not unique in that — it's an embarrassingly ubiquitous sentiment, made even more cliché by declaring it the day after his passing. But it's the truth. The lyrics, the guitar riffs, the Americana of it all — these are the reasons we all loved Petty's music.

It was a pillar in the anthology of the music I was raised on. I knew the lyrics to "Mary Jane's Last Dance" before I knew what Mary Jane meant, and my parents never made mention of me singing, "Oh my my, oh hell yes" as a child, apparently honoring an unspoken Tom Petty loophole in their normally strict code of conduct. "Yer So Bad" was practically a family anthem, sung around campfires and in cars and in the kitchen while my dad did the dinner dishes, often with an exaggerated point in each others' direction to accompany the lyric, "I've got you to save me."

My kids will have a similar story to tell one day, of hearing Tom Petty sing the song of their parents' lives, and maybe their own, against a backdrop of their own everyday American lives; around campfires and in cars and at kitchen sinks.

When my son asked to listen to the Moana soundtrack on the way to school this morning, I told him we'd still be listening to Tom Petty all day today, just like we did yesterday. And then I just said it: "Tom Petty died yesterday, you guys. The guy singing these songs is no longer alive now."

"It strikes me as especially heartbreaking to be talking about death with people sitting in car seats."

"Why?" They asked. I was reminded why these are the conversations that parents dread, and I pushed the thought of having this conversation in more personal terms out to the edge of my mind once again. I realized that maybe I'm practicing this conversation with Tom Petty as the subject, knowing one day we'll have to have a much more painful version. Tom Petty feels like the right amount of close — a name and a personality we know well, a legacy of memories, a shared understanding of his ethos and appeal, but not so close they'll miss him. Tom Petty's death is abstract for my kids, who have only known him through the speakers, where he'll live on for the rest of their lives.

"He was very old," I tell them, wondering when I'll have the guts to stop lying to my kids about death and when I'm even supposed to.

"How old was he?" I'm caught. Younger than their grandpa. How do I tell them the truth when the truth might pull the rug right out from underneath them? I drive a block in silence. "I Won't Back Down" plays in the background. I always tell my sons it's a song they'll need to learn one day, so strong-willed and confident, just like them.

"He was 66."

It hangs in the air for a minute. I try to see their faces in the rear-view mirror. They are in car seats, and it strikes me as especially heartbreaking to be talking about death with people sitting in car seats. "But his heart was sick," I add, hoping to intercept the follow-up questions I know I'm not prepared to answer. "He lived such a big life, making all that music for so many years; his heart was actually 100."

"And now he's dead?"

"Yeah. Now he's dead. But we'll have his songs forever."

They are quiet for a minute. My mind races will all the possibilities of what they're thinking, what damage I've done both by lying and by telling the truth, what question they might ask next, when I'll have to say the word "massacre" out loud to them for the first time, how lucky I am that I haven't been forced to yet the way 58 families in Las Vegas have.

My Spotify playlist has moved onto "Wildflowers." "Far away from your trouble and worries," Petty sings, "You belong somewhere you feel free."

"Hey mom?" my 6-year-old asks. I involuntarily take a deep breath, bracing myself for his question. "Yeah buddy?"

"Will you turn it up?"

Image Source: Flickr user Kat Grigg
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