Wow, I've been a real downer this week! Sorry, I just thought after yesterday's post about what you can do if someone you know is suffering a loss, it was natural to talk about how to bring your kids into the fold. I promise more fun and frivolity next week. This is an important topic, because the conventional wisdom has been to keep kids out of the loop on the whole death gig for as long as you can put it off. I understand the temptation to do that, but kids can handle so much more than we give them credit for. Conversations about death do not have to be the big "sit down and talk" type. They can be larger ongoing conversations.
Death has always been a topic at our house. People have asked, "when will you tell your kids about their big sister who died?" My answer is "right now." We tell them what is appropriate for them to know at any given time. Death is a HUGE concept even for adults, for children, it is even bigger. So, we use terms that they understand to their ability, and then answer questions as they come.
Fall is a great time to talk about death because that's what the season is all about. If you are a Christian type, the combination of Spring and Easter are a perfect time to talk about the concept of rebirth and heaven. Talking about the death of a loved one, or of someone you know, or even of someone that the world knows are all ways to introduce the concept. I have found that kids process death in such an open and honest way, they are not afraid as we both assume that they will be and as we are ourselves. When another child asks me who Brady is, or asks me about death, I always check with the parents before I tell their child about death. I believe that it is up to each family to decide how they want to introduce the topic, and I don't want to impede on their process, but the conversation usually goes something like this.
Me: Brady is my baby girl who died when she was very small.
Child: What does that mean?
Me: It means that her body stopped working and we had to say goodbye to her.
Child: Will you get to see her again?
Me: I believe that someday, in a long long time, when my body stops working too, that I will get to see her again. But that won't be for a long long time, and I miss her very much.
Child: [usually at this point the child says something amazing that brings tears to my eyes, or else they change the subject to cars or princesses or something else].
It's actually quite a simple conversation, and a typical one that I've had with my own child, and many other preschool aged children. They frequently don't react by putting themselves in the situation like we think they might (that really is something adults do far more than the children. The children tend to be more empathetic rather than sympathetic. It's really beautiful), but sometimes a child may say, "am I going to die?" And the answer I use is, "not for a very very very very long time." (The more times you say "very" the more likely that they are already thinking about cars or princesses).
Death is a part of life, and as adults, we get so jammed up it because we don't totally understand it. In many ways, children are far better able to accept it for what it is at the youngest ages than we are as adults. When my four-year-old was three, we started buying fish. I say that we started buying fish, because we had to keep buying fish to replace the ones that died. Each time a fish died, the four-year-old would say, "why did Carl die?" (Each fish was named Carl), and I would say, "I don't know..." and he would say, "I'll miss him." And that was it. The point I'm making is that often we are scared of other people's grief anyway, and that has to do with our fear of inadequacy in handling it. There is nothing to be afraid of. There is no ONE right answer, there is no ONE right way, it is a process for all of is. I only encourage the conversation because it makes the process that much easier for children to grasp if understand it at their level and process as they grow, rather than being offered the concept all at once and forced to make sense of it.
The most important thing: "I don't know" is a perfectly acceptable answer. Especially because there is so much about death that we really don't know.
Head on over to It's My Baby Blog, Welcome Baby Care's blog about parenting to find some excellent resources, including children's books.
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