The thing about being the all-knowing parent is that there are two sides to that coin. And when a serious loss or death occurs in our children’s lives, those same point-blank questions they ask about babies/poop/lightening will come about death and dying.
What makes such questions so tough?
- The meaning of death may still elude us personally.
- The one certain thing in life seems to defy the certain answer.
- If this particular loss is an emotionally hard issue for us, we will not be inclined to talk about something that upsets us – especially with our little ones and their unerring radar for our soft spots.
Death is a part of every life and even young children are aware of it. Road kill, dead bugs, fairy tale drama and screen time – all conspire to make it a daily event. But as a topic of conversation, few adults leap at the opportunity. And we should. Unemotional, scientific talk about death when it just shows up, helps to inoculate them and us for those more painful intrusions when something or someone beloved dies. Suggestions:
- Reflect on your own questions about death with a trusted adult or partner so that the words don’t get so stuck in your throat or you mind. If there is a religious component to your understanding and that is part of what you want to convey to your children, be plain and clear. White lies have a way of not ringing true and can actually cause more uneasiness than they relieve. “I don’t have an answer to that question” is also better and less confusing than euphemisms about ‘eternal rest’ or ‘gone away.’
- Break it down developmentally. The very young have a hard time taking death seriously –given how it’s depicted on screen – and tend to see it as short-lived and reversible. The slightly olders are beginning to get the hang of it as something more serious and complex, even ubiquitous, but it’s still hard for them to take it personally, or that it’s permanent/forever.
- The talk: keep it simple, short and scientific. Since the young mind is so concrete, best to talk about death as a change in function; when [the dog/grandma] dies, they stop breathing, their eyes can’t see anymore, they don’t think or talk/bark, can’t feel anything either. Then let them go back to playing. They will be back. That is when it is good to check in with them about what they understood.
- The ‘will you die’ question is usually asked by a child so young, she has no ability to comprehend that death is permanent. Consequently, try to get to the real point – which is usually about reassurance; ‘Are you worried that I won’t be able to take care of you?’ If so, then you can reassure and inform; ‘I won’t die for a very, very long time, so I’ll be here as long as you need me.’ An older child might press harder, and if so-‘If I did die, there are lots of people to take care of you, like Aunt Dot and Uncle Tom, or Grampa and Gramma.’