The Human Rights Warrior

Jennifer Prestholdt

Jennifer Prestholdt
Minneapolis, Minnesota,
February 25
Human rights lawyer, wife, and mother of three. (Not necessarily in that order.) I write about my experiences in fighting for human rights and how I am trying to bring those lessons home to my kids. Join our journey at, Humanrightswarrior on facebook and @JPrestholdt on Twitter. All material on this blog is © Jennifer Prestholdt, 2011, 2012


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APRIL 19, 2012 2:56PM

Talking To My Kids About Death

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Pet Graveyard

The recent demise of Fat Stanley was met with far fewer tears than that of Kevin Bacon (the gerbil) and definitely far less anguish than that of Tub-Tub, our first dearly departed rodent pet.  It did however, necessitate a discussion about death with my three children.   The easiest response to the question "Where is Stanley now?" would have been to describe dwarf hamster heaven, where Stanley roams freely among a vast surfeit of yogurt treats and well-oiled wheels.  While it is somewhat tempting to give them an easy and soothing answer, I cannot in good conscience pitch that pablum to my kids.  You see, in my line of work, I talk to people about death all the time.

As a human rights lawyer, my job is to document human rights abuses.   So there have been many days over the course of my career when I have asked  people to describe for me in very precise detail how someone they loved died.  In one week alone in 2007, I took statements from more than 45 Liberian refugees at Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana for Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  The very first person I interviewed at Buduburam was a teacher.  The teacher was wearing a pink polo shirt that was remarkably clean and crisp, given the hot, dusty conditions on the camp.  He had come into the Refugee Welfare Office, where we were piloting the interview process, after work to watch a football match on the TV.  When I asked if he wanted to give a statement, he said, "Sure.  Why not?"

It was late May and the equatorial sun had beat down relentlessly all day long. As we went into one of the private offices to do the interview, however, a pleasantly cool late afternoon breeze was coming through the barred window.  I discovered later that the location of the camp is very close to the Prime Meridian, not to mention the notional center of the world (0°, 0°).  The sun sets early and fast near the equator.  As we talked, the shafts of light from the setting sun were low and long, glinting off the gold in his round, wire-framed glasses.

I had an interview protocol to follow and certain biographical data to collect.  We talked about what he did in Liberia, where he had lived.  It was going well. We established a rapport, buzzing through the facts of his life.  I've done many similar interviews with the survivors of human rights abuses. You know immediately when a question is going to cause someone to break down.  But the trigger questions are not always the obvious ones and usually you can only tell as you ask the question.  As you see the pain  in their eyes, the anguish in the lines of their mouth.   The moment I asked the teacher if he had ever been married, I knew.  I knew we would both soon be crying.

People who have experienced trauma and loss often think it is behind them, that they have put it in the past.  But of course, that is never really possible.  The teacher and his fiance were not yet married when the fighting came to Monrovia in July 1990.  When Charles Taylor's NPFL rebels entered their neighborhood, they rounded everyone up and separated the men from the women. She talked back.  He yelled for her to hold her tongue, to just cooperate!  He didn't know if she heard him.  The teacher had been herded into the back of a pick-up truck with other young men.  It was from that vantage point - above and unable to help - that he saw the rebel hit her with the butt of his rifle.  He knocked her to the ground, turned the gun around and shot her. The whole thing happened fast, so fast.  Then the truck pulled away.

There was much more to his story.  He escaped the rebels eventually, made his way onto a leaky tanker with thousands of other refugees, made it to safety in Ghana.  Got a teaching job and lived in a refugee camp for 17 years.  But those parts of his story came later, after he had wiped the tears from his glasses.  After we took the time to honor the memory of his fiance.  To dedicate his statement to her, so that her story would not be lost among all the others in the terrible Liberian civil war.

As a parent, I know there is a natural impulse to try to shield our children from the sad and terrible details of both life and death.  I believe each parent has to make his or her own decision about what is best for their children, so I am not presuming to give advice.  I do believe in God and the potential of an afterlife, but I have no idea what actually happens after you die.  I know for a fact, however, that bad things - terrible things - happen all the time and, as my kids grow into their tweens and teens, I think I would be doing a disservice to them not to be honest about that.  And I am absolutely certain that, like the teacher, you carry your loved ones in your heart long after they leave this life.  The best thing you can do when you lose someone you love is to keep their memory close and honor them in whatever way you feel is right.

Sometime shortly after my third child was born, I gave up trying to be the perfect parent.  I made peace with the fact that the best I can do is try - try as hard as possible - to do my best.  I stopped obsessively reading parenting books and desperately seeking "expert" advice on how to do things like talk to my kids about serious issues like death.   I started following my own parenting guidestar. For lack of a better way to put it, I started listening to my gut instincts.

So when my 9 year old son asked me to tell him a story from my work, I looked at him silently for a while as I listened to that little voice inside my head. It was telling me that he was ready to hear the story of Victoria.

Victoria was the last refugee I interviewed at Buduburam on that trip in 2007.  She was a poised and intelligent young woman who rushed back to the camp from her classes at nursing school in Accra in order to give her statement.  We sat outside, away from the buildings on the edge of the camp, face to face with each other on white plastic chairs set on the hard-packed red dirt.  Victoria's mother had died when she was young, so as a child in Liberia she had lived alone with her father.  Her story began later than the teacher's; two civil wars raged in Liberia between 1989 and 2003.  She was only 8 or 9 - the same age as my son - when the fighting reached her home.  

Her father told her to hide in the bushes by the side of the house while he went out to talk to the rebels.  She lay on her belly in the bushes as the rebels argued with her father.  She watched as they shot him in the head and he fell to the ground, unmoving.  The rebels went into the house and took food and anything of value.  But they didn't find Victoria in her hiding place and eventually they lit the house on fire and left.   "I didn't know what to do," Victoria told me.  "My father never moved so I knew he was dead.  I just didn't know what to do next.   So I stayed in the bushes, crying, near my father's body all night."   The next day, as the sun rose, she kissed her father goodbye and went to a neighbor's house.  The neighbor brought Victoria with her to Ghana.

After Victoria told me her story and left for her home, I sat for a long time on that white plastic chair, on the edge of a refugee camp near the latitudinal and longitudinal center of the world.  A cool breeze stirred the sweat-damp hair on the back of my neck as the sun sank rapidly. The sunset was brilliant with colors - the muted pink of an impossibly crisp polo shirt, the bright orange of my small son's hair, the deep purple of a bruise left by a rifle butt.

My son had listened to the story quietly.  I hadn't been sure how he would react, so it was a surprise when he said,  "That was interesting.  I feel sorry for Victoria.  It's sad that all of that happened to her.  But she found a way to survive without her dad.  The neighbor and other people took care of her.  It kind of makes me less afraid of what would happen if you died."

The kid makes good point.  One which I hadn't thought of before I told him about Victoria.   Talking to my kids about death is also talking to them about life and how to live it. 

So here's to you, Fat Stanley.

And to you,  Kevin Bacon. 


I honor your memory and the time you spent with us.

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I never believed in taboo subjects when it came to my children. My wife and I talked to them about everything and the best part was this: they did too. Many parents confuse the line between discipline--which is overrated--and estrangement. The closer the relationship between parents and children, the healthier the children grow, save genetic factors of course.

Sorry about Tub-Tub; it is a part of life. This is a great read, and you are a fine human being. R
I really enjoyed how you tied all of this together. Very profound. I wonder what I'll say to my kids about death one day. Probably will go with hamster heaven, but still, you make some very good points here about how important it is to tell the truth sometimes, and how that can truly be a healing thing.

Also, may your departed pets rest in peace.
Jennifer your titles are so straight forward and your writing takes such unexpected turns. It works to make even a difficult subject like death a pleasure to read.

@ Thoth - thanks much! So far, the open discussion model is working for me and my family. We'll see what happens when they are teenagers!

@Alysa - It's kind of fun to think about what hamster heaven would be like, actually. Thanks for your comment!

@V.Corso - I'm not very creative with titles, am I? Thanks very much for your kind comment.
As little as fifty years ago, death was not a taboo in our culture. Almost every child lost someone, a grandparent, great aunt, neighbor, teacher or even a classmate by the age of ten. My stepson was eleven when his grandfather passed but it was not until his father died that he was overwhelmed with loss. When he asked me about it, I told him that his generation was blessed to be born into a time when fewer people died at such a young age. By the time I was twenty I'd been to more than twenty funerals and knew of even more people who had died.
An excellent point, jmac. In many parts of the world, death is still very much a part of life. For my kids - and most American kids, I suspect - it pretty much only exists only in imagination and movies. So when it happens in real life, it can be pretty shocking. Thanks much for your comment!
Jennifer-- straight forward doesn't mean boring!
It most definitely does not, V! And no offense was taken. Thanks so much again for reading and commenting.
I don't know how you do what makes you

Death..difficult. I agree with jmac.
Death a very difficult subject. We all want to begin...ending...
not so good!
This is a beautiful piece, Jennifer. You're a great parent, and a great witness to some terrible tragedies. Thanks for bringing us along. RIP, Victoria's father and Tub Tub.
I enjoyed the way to told this story, Thank you for sharing.
Jennifer, glad to meet you. What a nice weave you did here between the kids, the animals and the tales from afar that are truly beyond horrifying.

We have birthdays one day apart and most of us early Pisces are concerned with justice, and yet being sensitve souls as a rule, I admire and wish I could do what you do in work life. I think I'd never stop crying.

As for talking to kids about death, I loved Thoth's comment and I have my own take too. Goes like this: I have only one daughter but though she is a late in life kid, I took on all manner of other kids, foster, long visitations. And what I exposed mine and some others to were actual deaths. One time in JamaicaWI, we had a dog that gave birth to a big litter. The kids held the puppies and one by one by one each one died. So they had "funerals" they created, different for each pup, and I was glad that at 2 1/2 my kid and her little friends were so matter of fact about it. When my grandmother died my DD was maybe four. She knew her great-grandma and I remember her peering over the edge as the coffin was lowered into the ground, matter of fact, once again. There have been four big important dog losses where she administered Chemo and lost them; each was old. And then her dad died. She was just beautiful (if terribly sad) at the hospital when he was in a coma, gently touching him and softly talking to him. So my long-winded point is this: I think not shielding kids from the deaths they will have esp with pets as babies is the best way, way beyond words, to let them prepare for the inevitable losses. But I'm also with you, no sugar coating just letting the beloved departed be in our minds and souls. She will lose me too due to our vast age difference, too young. But I think she has built up ways to grieve that will hopefully keep her highly functional, come what may. Best--born on Feb 24th. Highly rated.
It sounds like your gut is serving you well. These are sad stories, but like most stories, they also hold lessons. Even, sometimes, ones we overlook and our kids see. A well told and moving piece. With extra points for good rodent names.
@Ande - I think often about your beautiful writings about your daughter and what it would be like to lose a child. She's so real and alive to me when I read about her, I feel like she could have been a friend! I'm so sorry for your loss and I thank you for sharing your experience - and your daughter - with those of us who did not have the privilege of knowing her.
@froggy - I don't know about the parenting - as I said, I just do my best and have decided to be ok with that - but I do see a role for myself as a witness to human rights abuses. If you could see Victoria (which was not actually her name) and how strong and brave and beautiful she was, you would know that her father would be proud of her. Thanks for your comment!
@Patience - thanks for your comment. I really appreciate your stories of love and loss as well.

@wendyo - so nice to meet you! I have never heard that about Pisces - that explains a lot. I was born just after midnight on Feb. 25, so we basically share a birthday. Thanks for reading and sharing your own parenting wisdom.

@jlsathre - always a pleasure to hear from you. Thanks very much! We can't claim credit for "Tub-Tub" as we inherited him when our neighbors moved to Thailand. There is a good chance that he met his end when Hobie Cat got a hold of him, but the party line is that he died of dehydration several days after he escaped his cage. No amount of brutal facts and rational argument will convince these chilluns otherwise.
I love your intuitive approach. It takes a while to parent from that place (sometimes I think it's a lifelong process). But, for what it's worth, it seems you got it right with your son--and that's a pretty precious thing.
Thanks Drema! I don't always get it right, but when it works it is truly a precious thing. I think you are exactly right that it takes time to parent from that place. Thanks so much for your comment!
What an incredible story and what an incredible life Jennifer, how you keep holding to the beauty of it in spite of all the terrible things you see and hear, what a wonderful gift of courage and love for your kids, Nathalie
Hi Nathalie! Thanks so much for reading and for your kind words!
Don't quite know why but the name "Fat Stanley" for a pet delights me. RIP!
Anything with the word "fat" makes me happy. Tub Tub too. Trying is the best we can do. I've learned that too. This was a charming and touching piece. That daughter of yours is a dreamboat.
Thank you for sharing your experiences and thoughts, Jennifer. You have such a unique gift and strength to be able to reconcile the things you see with your daily family life, and explain them to your son (and us) so well. Thank you for this heartbreaking but also wonderful post.
Thanks fernsy! I don't actually get credit for the names of any of these pets. The name "Fat Stanley" is actually a play on the children's book character Flat Stanley, but it would be equally good for a chubby little dwarf hamster or mafia boss.

Hi clay ball! Thanks for your comment - you are very welcome. The good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful and the mundane in life all exist together, so I'm glad I can convey that once in a while. Thanks again!
Interesting read here, glad you are giving your children a way to process this most important factor in living -- death -- throughout their childhood. I think that is crucial. I am also glad you are writing about it all here. Adorable photo too!
Death has not been a stranger to our family, my kids either -- we deal with death with a ceremony that I will not share here fully, but suffice to say we circle, light a candle, make ritual, we talk about the passed-on loved one...there have been pets, family, friends...and we send them on to the spirit world.
The Spirit World. Not heaven, necessarily, but how we describe the 'place' those not on Earth are. Part of the Mystery inherent to us all.
Maybe because my father died suddenly when I was young and it was not handled openly, my kids have known of death their whole life, have talked about it when needed or wanted...not taboo or strange or awkward when it's just part of our lives. I say this is just crucial for kids/ will come close at some point for us all, better for the topic of death not to be a new one when it does arrive.
I promise, that is almost cruel to a child not to know about death at all and to have it hit suddenly. I firmly believe/know it cripples the process of dealing with death in our lives, healing from death in our lives, when it has been a taboo subject beforehand.

I will add that a big part of all this for my kids is the discussion of the Mystery-- what we don't know and neither does anyone else who is still alive -- because death has Mystery. Maybe we'd have less polarity in our world if better acknowledgement of the Mystery existed.
All of that said, I personally don't see hamster heaven as pablum, especially for those so young. If we don't know just what is ahead, why be sure in our minds of what is pablum, what is not, ahead of time?
The most beneficial and unexpected part of raising my kids with the concept of Mystery: my grown sons seem more at peace when those tough areas in life arrive as they aren't expecting black and white solutions, or any solution necessarily, they know some things are Mystery and we will know in due time. They seem comfortable with "maybe" as well, a common response when they were young to their wonders about the unknown. I feel so blessed to have stumbled upon these concepts when my kids were young as I see how hard it is for some young adults, some adults in general, to have uncertainties in their lives....when that's all anyone can really expect.

Thanks again, Jennifer, for another excellent post.
Thanks very much to YOU, Just Thinking, for sharing your thoughts and your family's experience here! Best wishes!
this is inspiring. kids think about death more than adults realize. they take it in and process it in surprising ways. this is why children's literature like Where the Red Fern Grows and Bridge to Terabithea fill a need.

great post, thank-you.
I think you are exactly right. Thanks for reading and thanks very much for your comment, doloresflores!
Someone else stated it but I will follow through in that death was once a part of living as was the elderly being part of the family experience as long as they are on the earth. Warehousing them in nursing homes became a way of not dealing with caring for them in our upwardly mobile society.

When I lost my beloved great-uncle, who had battled leukemia most of my life, when I was 11, I was made to stand by the car across the street from the funeral home because, "You can't possibly understand all this adult stuff, N______." I was charged with my little brothers, one eight and one four. Maybe my direction toward my lay ministry in Chaplaincy and Bereavement and Grief Support started then.

Then again, it could have been the other great-uncles and great-aunts along the way. Or the full-term babies my 10-year-older sister lost a year apart when I was 14 and 15. I know the direction and rudder were set in April 1979 when my younger brother, age 21, was killed in an accident. The only college class I completed that semester was the Psychology of Death and Dying.

I tell you all of this to say that two nights before his death I had finished my term paper in the course on Children & Death: Do We Let Them Face It. I followed every guideline I set out with my four-year-old in the following days with her favorite uncle. I took much heat from my family for my decisions. However, my children have a healthy outlook on loss in their lives and they were hit hard, young. I don't mean pets, I mean important people. My oldest was four when my brother died, my youngest (the twins) were four when both grandfathers died five weeks apart. There were others in between, but those were major.

You are so right in that we must talk realistically to our children about the realities they shouldn't just ignore along with ignoring the feelings that go with them. It is OK to be sad that TubTub and Fat Stanley died. I was in my fifties when I learned about "The Rainbow Bridge." Most pet lovers recognize it as the bridge our pets go over to wait for us after their time on earth. Some would say it is fantasy for children, but it was the adults in my life that cling there.

I hope I have not bored you, but wanted you, as a younger mother than I, to know how important this is and I respect the manner with which you are doing it.
I have found, and I am still finding, that my gut instincts have been fairly accurate when my kids want to discuss topics as prickly as death and dying. You have the added benefit of the stories you gleaned first hand from your time at the equator. This was a good read. Thank you.
@pastvoices - Thanks very much for sharing your story here. I'm glad that there are people in the world like you to help others with dealing with their loss. I appreciate your words more than you can know. My children have been very lucky and have only lost one or two important people so far, most notably my Grandpa Olaf who died a couple of years ago at 101 and was very much a grandfather to them as well. But they have a grandfather (my father-in-law) who is now dying from Alzheimer's. In some ways, I feel I am trying to prepare them for that. Thank you again for your comment!
Hi Linnnn! Thanks very much for reading and commenting. I appreciate hearing that others have also found it important to follow their gut instincts.
Beautifully written with honest insight. Thank you for sharing, it was a very enjoyable read.
Witchywmn, thank you very much for your kind words!
wow this is amazing, Thank you for everything you have done for those people, I don't know if I'd be able to listen to their stories without breaking down crying every time I was told one. I'm glad there are people like you in this world who are willing and driven to help others like this.
My son was 6 when my father died of cancer. I loved my dad and grieved terribly though I have faith that I'll see him again one day. I read in the Bible that a seed has to die so that what it becomes can be born. Mindful of that metaphor and knowing what a gracious man my father already was, I'm excited to see him in the presence of our Lord. I talk about these things with my son. These bodies are clumsy and fragile, never intended to enter eternity and all pain and fear and fatigue will be cried about, then forgotten in our new home.
My son was 6 when my father died of cancer. I loved my dad and grieved terribly though I have faith that I'll see him again one day. I read in the Bible that a seed has to die so that what it becomes can be born. Mindful of that metaphor and knowing what a gracious man my father already was, I'm excited to see him in the presence of our Lord. I talk about these things with my son. These bodies are clumsy and fragile, never intended to enter eternity and all pain and fear and fatigue will be cried about, then forgotten in our new home.
My favorite uncle died at 34 in an accident when I was very young. After seeing him in the casket I told someone that I would never remember him that way, that I would remember him playing dominoes with my Dad, his brother, laughing over some joke between them. I have other memories, but that one is vivid still.
I liked the lesson your son took from the story. Death is over for the departed. It's how the ones left learn to cope and the generosity and care that we have for each other that is important.
What you did in Ghana must have been very hard. R
@ClairesAngel - thanks very much for your comment. Mostly I feel like I get more out of the job than I give. The people I work with are pretty inspiring.

@TexasTreader - thank you for your beautiful words!

@escrito por nada - I'm glad that you were able to keep that wonderful memory of your uncle! Thanks so much for your comment.
This is a beautiful and sad story that is also very well-written. I really enjoyed reading about your experiences with your job, and your description of where you were and the process you go through with the people you interview. I can't believe the amount of sadness but there also seems to be hope. You son's response is wonderful and would seem to show something about how you have raised him. A really wonderful piece all the way around.
Thanks very much, MWG. Coming from a teacher, that is high praise indeed!
"Wouldn't it be great if beings could get to live suddenly as often as they die suddenly" K. Hepburn

As a therapist who often joins in the journey of people who are grieving, it is at times enough to just take full breaths. Writings like this one here Jennifer help to remind me that we all do our part as best we can.

I once heard someone say that death is mostly a matter of those left living. So like you said, I think what we can do is to breathe in that which is our own pain and breath out a wish for others to be free from theirs.....and to share what we feel which is the undeniable truth. Thanks for your efforts and your willingness to share. :)
Hey B! Nice to see you here! Thanks for your comment. Very insightful. I've never heard that Hepburn quote before - love it!
In the last two years we’ve had two longtime pets (Huskies) die. In both cases they had to be euthenised. In both cases we had our 5/6 and 2/3 year old children present. I would definitely do it the same way again. No avoidance, no histrionics, we grieve and miss those who die but accept that’s how life (and death) works.

We explained it simply and clearly to them. We said our goodbyes together, grieved together and they were both remarkably resilient. Unsurprisingly the younger child was much less impacted than the older. But for all of us it felt very natural and completely honest. There was grieving, sadness and tears but nothing that I could identify as trauma for either child then or since. Looking for cheapest auto insurance in Florida?