5 Things Not to Say When Talking With a Child About Death

How does one go about choosing an outfit to wear to the funeral of someone they love knowing that going forward it will be thought of as, “The outfit I wore to the funeral.”?

While staring blankly into my closet full of more than enough clothes to wear, a little voice from behind me said, ”Mommy, what are you doing?”
“I’m trying to decide what to wear to the service for Uncle Buddy tomorrow.”
“Oh...” [long pause] “Are you okay?” he asked.
“Yes…right now, in this moment…I’m okay.” I replied.
“Alright. I’m going to play in the fort. Call me if you need me.” he said, skipping out of the room.

“Call him if I need him…” I said to myself smiling.
He’s 9 and I’m convinced he has a better grasp on everything than I do.

As I turn back to the plethora of clothing, the silence falls heavily.

I take some options from the hangers and fold them into my suitcase, careful to lay a few things out so that I can slip into them as quietly as possible after my 4:00 a.m. alarm alerts me to the beginning of this journey into grief.

Two days ago, after receiving the call that my uncle had laid his head back to rest, falling asleep one last time, it began a slew of conversations. The kind that take time and intentional thought. The ones that include long pauses and deep sighs. Are you familiar with these kinds of conversations?

I’m going to skip a ton of detail and get to the point as quickly as possible.

Sometimes we don’t understand why we are in certain seasons of life and why we are walking through things that seem far from what we had planned. And then one day, if we pay attention, we get a glimpse of the answer.

I have learned so much from the families who have welcomed me alongside them while they are experiencing loss. Being a witness to someone else’s pain is difficult to describe. To say that it puts things into perspective is much too basic. It has reshaped the way I see the world and now feel the reality that everyone lives and will one day die.

I am being taught how to navigate difficult conversations with my own children about death without being afraid. Out of all the many words and spoken thoughts we have shared, here are words and phrases I’ve learned not to use.

“He passed away.” Children are literal. We adults have a hard time saying the words, “He died.” We want to cushion the news. Don’t. This only confuses a child. When Jesus said that we need to become like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven, I’m beginning to understand what he meant. Their eyes have not been clouded. They are still able to see things as they truly are.

“We lost him.” Again, children are literal and will question, “If we lost him, we will be able to find him.”

“He’s in a better place.” They will want to know why they can’t be there too if it’s a better place. And why would we be left behind instead of going with him?

“It’s okay.” It’s not okay. It’s sad and the grieving process may not have even begun due to the shock of losing someone suddenly. It will be okay, but for now, it’s sad and we should experience the sadness and grieve the loss. Remember that grief is unpredictable. It comes at the most inopportune times. Be prepared to react to things much differently for a time.

“We aren’t going to talk about it.” They want to talk about it. They want to share memories and tell stories. It is counterproductive not to let them express their emotions and thoughts. Of the many people I have talked with after the loss of someone close to them, the thing I hear repeatedly is, “I wish people weren’t afraid to talk about him. I want to keep his memory alive and the best way to do that is by sharing stories about him.” 

I don’t know this for sure, but maybe children intuitively know how to process grief much better than we adults do? I want to be open to change and continually learning. Who knew that some of my best teachers would be the smallest people in my home?Boys in sunlight

2 Corinthians 4:16-18
So we have no reason to despair. Despite the fact that our outer humanity is falling apart and decaying, our inner humanity is breathing in new life every day.
17 You see, the short-lived pains of this life are creating for us an eternal glory that does not compare to anything we know here. 18 So we do not set our sights on the things we can see with our eyes. All of that is fleeting; it will eventually fade away. Instead, we focus on the things we cannot see, which live on and on.

I’m sure you have many things to add to my five. What are they? Let’s ease each other’s burdens, even if only through the comments on this page. You never know how far your hope is reaching.

To the One Who Loves an Alcoholic

There is someone in my life who I adore. I love her so much that my insides ache when she’s hurting. Unfortunately she is in love with an alcoholic. And as some of you reading this have experienced…we are capable of causing the worst kind of pain. 

Looking back over more than a decade in recovery, free from alcohol and all it brings with it, there are things that I know to be true. Things I can see now that I couldn’t see before. Things that just, are, no matter how much I wish they weren’t.

So, I wrote her this letter and now I’m sharing it with you.
Not to provide all the answers for what you’re going through, but to hopefully shed some light on the person whom you have continually given the ability to hurt your heart.

I will be removing any personal information with generic wording and adding quotes so that you can insert the name of your person.

Friend,” this is truth…

He” is married to alcohol. Drugs are his mistress. Anything else…anyone else, is just a side thing. He always returns to what he knows. Alcohol.

It’s one of the most difficult relationships to sever. It can be done, but it takes more work than most people are willing to put in.

It’s not you.

Truly. It isn’t.

It’s that cunning, baffling bitch known as alcoholism. And without a Higher Power, complete Surrender, and the Willingness to change by dying to self, there is no hope.

You’ve laid awake countless nights, bartering with God.
Your bartering has turned to begging.
Your begging has turned to weeping.
Your weeping has turned to exhaustion.
And just when you’re about to give up…there he comes…back in the picture…full of empty promises that you want so badly to be true.
And the vicious cycle starts all over again.

This has gone on for years.
You say things like, “…but I love him! When you really love someone, you don’t just give up on them.
That may be true, but…
as a human being, a beautiful child of God, born with great purpose, you must see the wasted moments on this person who is blissfully unaware of your worth.

You don’t, do you?
You can’t.
Something in you, like in all of us, grasps on to the smallest ounce of hope and we refer back to that speck even when we are surrounded by the mountains of proof that say otherwise.

This is where I have done my share of begging God.
For reasons unknown to me, He hasn’t lifted the blinder that covers your eyes.
I know He can.
I know He wants you to be whole and live in the light of His glory and grace.
And yet knowing this, doesn’t make it any easier to watch.

There is a reason why so many alcoholics lose their battle with alcohol, at times taking entire families down with them.
Like the blinder you wear, he too wears a self-inflicted blinder.
The difference in yours and his is that he can remove his at any time.
All if takes to begin is a choice to change.
One choice can change everything.
After that one choice is when the real work begins.
I can’t even call it rebuilding. That can’t start until all of the wreckage is sorted through and hauled away.
This is a grueling process.
It’s the part where most people give up.
After all, it’s much easier to have a drink than to feel the weight of our current reality.

Here’s that most difficult part for you and for most people…
Are you ready for this?

There is nothing you can do to change him.

You can’t wish him sober.
You can’t force him to get sober.
You can’t make him see the disaster he leaves in his wake every time he comes around.

Here’s what you can do.

You can accept that nothing is going to change until he actively participates in recovery. (By this, I mean, pursues it like he would his next “fix.” It’s the only way to freedom.)
You can acknowledge and release the time you have given him and that he has squandered.
You can look at yourself in the mirror and say 2 words, “Not Anymore.” followed by 4 words, “From this moment forward.”
You can sincerely speak into your child’s heart and mind that you are her protector, provider, greatest advocate, teacher, mother, and that you will do whatever it takes to provide a life that’s healthy physically, emotionally, spiritually and mentally. One where she can grow and thrive, because you know the time that you have with her is short and you will lay a solid foundation that she can always stand on without worry of losing her footing.
(The way you can be 100% confident of this is because it’s what Christ does for you…and for her…everyday.)
You can recognize that even though you didn’t plan for your life to play out this way, there are so many people who love you and want to come alongside you, if you will let them.
You can cry when you need to cry, scream even, when staring at the difficult truth that your child’s father isn’t present. (This is no place to linger. You feel the feelings and move on.)
You can look in the mirror, straight into your own soul and breathe in the grace that you will need on a daily basis to do life.
You can repeat in your head and out loud as much as needed, I am not alone. I am capable. I am strong and I am worthy of love.”
You can say these same affirmations to your daughter. She will need to know them. There may come a time in her life when they seem the only thing to cling to in the midst of the storm.
You can put one foot in front of the other and know that there will be days when you are in a groove and moving like a champion as well as the ones where every step towards tomorrow seems to sucker punch you back into yesterday. That’s okay. We appreciate beauty all the more when we see the purpose of the rain. (Didn’t you tell me that?)

“Friend,” You are so very loved.
We see you.
We hear you.
You matter.

And…it’s time to walk away.
We’ll be right beside you every step of the way.

Love and Grace,

Why it’s not time to give up… yet.

Every time I sit down to write something, I stare at the blank page, with the cursor pulsing as if to say, “Well, what are you going to say?! Don’t just sit there!”

So I close the page and think to myself, “Maybe tomorrow?
And tomorrow comes and goes… without so much as a keystroke.

Today, while staring at the cursor, I began typing just to interrupt it’s rhythm.
I started writing to spite my cursor.

As the thoughts keep coming, it’s difficult to move my fingers quickly enough. Words are skipped and thoughts are gone before they can be noted, but there is always another one to take the last ones place.


looking back, I’m really glad Chris took this pic.

Last week, I gave up hope.
I was sicker than I have ever been in my life.

An infection that started in one area of my body quickly spread to my throat and sinus’, making it difficult to breathe and threatening to grow new abscess’, pushing on the two large arteries in the sides of my neck. My words were muffled and I couldn’t speak above a whisper. My mind hurt as my head throbbed and the sound of my heart beating in my ears was a constant companion.

My eyes cried tears of grief on and off for 7 days even though my body had given up.

I thought I was going to die.
I decided it was okay to die.
I processed everything that would happen to my children… the celebrations and milestones I would miss.
I would never again laugh with Chris or kiss his mouth…
My niece would grow up only hearing stories about me, never knowing me…

It was, by far, one of the deepest, darkest, pits I have ever fallen into and the more I lay with my face against the cold ground, the deeper I sank into the abyss.

As I type, the logical part of my brain (which is small and rarely speaks up) is telling me to shut up. The more I type, the louder it gets. This is deeply personal and one of you needs to read this today… in this moment. You are contemplating giving up hope and what you do not realize is that your miracle is only a few breaths away.

I began to understand and embrace the meaning of the phrase, “My soul aches.

It’s as if, with one long exhale, my desire to exist was extinguished and I released my children, my lover, my best friends, my family, my memories, my future plans… everything went dark and the world became still.

I didn’t beg God for life, bargain for more time, or recount any regrets.
I simply closed my eyes and went to sleep with the thought that if I didn’t wake up on that bed in the ER, that’s what was supposed to happen and I didn’t have the strength or desire to fight it.

For several months now, I have been praying this prayer,
“God, break my heart for what breaks yours. Stretch me far from my place of comfort and lead me to the cross… into the center of other people’s pain. Teach me how to trust you, sitting quietly in your presence, even when it’s uncomfortable..”

I want to know Christ in a deeply personal way. As I began asking God what exactly that meant, the prayer above is what came into my spirit as clear as if someone spoke it audibly to me in conversation. I don’t know why I thought intimacy with my Savior could ever be attained without suffering.

So to sum this up…
I had to sit in the moments of desolation.
I had to trust that God still held me closely in His will.
I had to believe that He wouldn’t leave me where He had led me.
I had to call out the hollow, hopeless feeling for what it was… a feeling, that no matter how “real” it felt, would eventually pass.
I had to claim life.

I receive the gifts that came from a season of dwelling in the darkness.
One might argue that a couple of weeks does not a season make. I would have to disagree.

My Friend, if you are learning how to walk in the dark, without fear of being swallowed up, keep going, the other side is well worth the journey.

When This Isn’t “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”

If you’re reading this, I’m guessing you were drawn in by the title, either because you are feeling bombarded with all the “cheer” while not feeling the happiness that others expect you to feel during this time of year, or because you are curious as to why anyone would not see this as the best month of all 12.

No matter which position I have found you in, I’m asking that you relinquish all expectation of what this post is about and be present as your eyes scroll the words and your brain processes the thoughts.

It’s everywhere. The way we “should” be feeling. How we “should” be thinking. What we “should” be buying…

So what do we do when none of our feelings encompass all of the “should(s)” placed on us, and the last thing we feel is “cheerful“?

I have been given the gift of “burden bearing.” I haven’t always thought it a gift and at times tried to mask or ignore it all together. It has only been recently that I’m learning to embrace it and see it as a blessing rather than a curse.

The transformation started several years ago when Katie was 14 weeks pregnant with her 3rd child. Her baby was given the fatal diagnosis of Trisomy 13. On December 19, 2011, at 10:45 a.m., Hallie Lynn Green was born. Weighing in at 4 lbs.15 oz. and stretching 18.75 inches long.

On December 24, 2014, Hallie passed from her mama’s arms back into the arms of Jesus. Katie wrote on her blog that day, “Thank you, God, for allowing me to be Hallie’s mother. Although losing you, Hallie, is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, I would carry you and love you all over again in a heartbeat. I feel like the luckiest mom in the world. I love you.”

It is Hallie’s life and Katie’s willingness to learn how to walk in the dark that moved me from a place of empathy to action. In 2012 I began my journey, through my lens, into other people’s pain. That’s a strange way of wording it, I know, but it’s the only wording that makes sense to me.

I have been invited to document the sacred moments between life and death. There are days when I will experience the beauty of life and the gnawing sorrow of death, all within a matter of hours. I stand witness to a wide spectrum of emotions, at times, with people I’ve only just met.

The way to deal with painful emotions is not to get rid of them, it’s to sit with and in them, making the darkness conscious. Knowing that there will once again be light. Being able to experience emotion is key to paving a path to peace. To suppress it is toxic. The further we push it down, the more it festers until one day we can no longer bandage the gaping wound. Some cannot believe that the light will ever return. But it will. Healing is possible. I’ve watched it happen. However, to come to that place, one must be willing to wrestle the angel of darkness.

It is helpful to remember that grief is unpredictable. It shows up at the most inopportune times. It often comes without warning, when there are no Kleenex anywhere to be found and you didn’t apply waterproof mascara. It’s presence is often uncomfortable and frustrating. Even so, each time it appears there is something to be learned. Though the uninvited teacher, pain is not our enemy.

For those friends and family feeling helpless, may I offer some encouragement? There are 3 things you can do to help the one you love.
~ Be Present (Don’t avoid reaching out or taking something by and leaving it on their doorstep or in their mailbox)
~ Listen (I wish we could be more comfortable listening than speaking. It is a learned behavior. When wanting to make someone feel important, listen intently to them.)
~ Be okay with “uncomfortable silence.” (Silence is beautiful when we consciously befriend it.)

If you are currently learning to walk through the darkness, may I speak these truths into your heart?
~ You are not alone.
~ The Creator of the Universe knows you by name. He formed you, piece by piece and therefore sees you and hears your cries.
~ Jesus himself promises that those who mourn will be comforted. (Matthew 5:1-14)
~ You have permission to lower the bar.
If you don’t want to go to that holiday party, don’t go.
If you find your eyes welling with tears while walking down the grocery store isle, it’s okay to walk away from your cart and leave the store.

We must embrace the seasons of darkness just as we long for the seasons of light. To have one without the other leaves us lacking perspective and appreciation for either.


Was this post helpful? Do you have anything to add about seasons of grief? How can we pray for you? How have you been encouraged through pain? Feel free to leave a comment and we will respond.

If you’re in need of encouragement, click here for a fantastic message from Joel Thomas.
To hear the song inspired by Hallie’s life, written by Casey Darnell, click here

How to Know She’s Your Person

It’s the person you’ve known as long as you can remember having memories.
The one who holds your hair while you barf and tells you when those jeans make your butt look big.
She’s the same one who will say (in a non-embarrassing way) “You gotta little somethin’…” as she slides her forefinger across her face pretending to wipe her nose.
She’s the one waiting when you come out of a public restroom to ensure that you didn’t tuck your skirt into your spanx.
She’s the one who stays by you when you’re not worth staying by.
She’s the first one you call when something tragic or fantastic happens.
She encourages you to pray when you’d rather rant and take a deep breath when you wanna scream.
She believes in you when no one else does and tells you all the reasons why, even when you won’t listen.
She laughs when you act ridiculous and patiently answers every neurotic question you have about germs.
No matter how old you get and how much time passes, you always pick up right where you left off.
She’s your person.

Vi, thanks for being my person all these years. I’m so grateful.
photo 3Who’s your person?

5 Reasons to Spend Time With a Mother and Her Young Children

JCP-8081I had the opportunity to spend part of my morning with my friend Melissa and her two children, Alex (2 years) and Eliana (10 months). I’m so glad I had my camera, because what I captured tells the story better than my words can.

1) Be curious. Wonder. Participate in life from the ground up. Don’t be afraid to mess up. You can always start again.

2) Ask lot’s of questions. (Even if you think they’re silly) Life is about learning and growing, no matter your age.

3) When having a serious conversation, eat chocolate… and laugh… throw your head back and let loose. (Chocolate and laughing make everything better.)

4) Play and Explore (Be resourceful)
Build a drum set from the buckets you just took off your head when you were being a robot. Play hide and seek with the nearest blanket. Sit in the rocking chair backwards.

“Mommy, wanna go look for giants with me?”
This question from Alex diverted me from all other conversation.
“Melissa, did he just ask you to go look for giants?!” I asked.
“Yes. We look for giants at least once a day.” she replied.


5) Take naps. Even if you don’t think you’re tired…
Feeling grumpy? Chances are, ya just need a nap.

Children are the best teachers. And most of them don’t even use words. They use action. It’s not always the right action, but it’s action nonetheless. They don’t sit around, talking about it and wait to see what happens.

When did we (adults) stop learning by doing?
When did we choose to walk away from a challenge and instead immerse ourselves in a Google search or social media for the answer?
When did we stop playing?
Why don’t we laugh with abandon?
When was the last time you sat on the floor, observing your surroundings?
Some of us need to revisit childhood. If you don’t like the one you had, ask someone to take you back with them to theirs.
Come back and tell us about your adventures in the comment section.

Other things I learned on my morning excursion…

A single shoestring can transform a toddler into a giant-slayer.
JCP-8049Egg cartons double as very hungry caterpillars.

Robots get hungry too.

What are you learning from your kids…or friends kids…or nieces and nephews, grandchildren or students in your class? Have any great pictures that tell a story? Email them to me at joycannisphotography(at)gmail(dot)com

To the Oldies, the Newbies and Those Inbetween

thank you I want to take a minute to say, “Thank you.”
To those of you who have shared my writings all over social media,
To those who have read and commented,
To those who are receiving notifications of new posts,
To those who aren’t afraid to disagree with me,
To those who I’ve never even met, but consistently send me encouragement,
To those who email me with desperate pleas for help with addiction, eating disorders or something else you know I have walked through,
To those who find community here…
It is such a privilege to share this space with you.

I love that we have comments from all over the world complimenting our stories. It’s incredible to read of the laughter and tears shed (sometimes in the same sitting) while reading posts and comments on these pages.

If you’ve been around here for any length of time, you know that I’m a egomaniac with an inferiority complex. Some days my feet never touch the ground, while other days my face never leaves the dirt. I am my own worst critic with an inner cheerleader. I fluctuate between feeling like a goddess and an ogre. I am either the happiest, most optimistic person in the room or the anxiety ridden pessimist who draws the blinds and sits in the dark.

Through all of the emotions, I have written. The one constant in my physical life has been the ability to verbally vomit when needed and find healing in the chaos. Through the journey of starting my own business, grieving the loss of someone close to me and walking into incredibly fragile situations with families I had never met, to document the last few moments of their baby’s life, I know I can come here, to this page and process.

I have been completely overwhelmed (in a good way) by the response to many of the things I write. Astounded that anything I have to say would resonate with anyone else and move them to positive action. Elated to find that I am not alone in any struggle.

I am so grateful to you for using what I know to be valuable, precious time, to be with me for a few moments. It’s a gift and one that I do not take for granted.

The days ahead are full. And though I can’t come visit with you as much as I would like, please know that I think of you, my beautiful readers, all the time. I pray for you and I thank God for you.

Thank you for investing in my story.

Love and Light,


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