Thursday, June 25, 2009

Talking to children about death

Mama Outloud's post on talking with her daughter about dying got me thinking about how my own children learned about death.

Before Alex our family really had been fortunate in not losing family members until a ripe old age. A year before Alex was born big C's grandfather passed away. In telling the kids about it we used the same technique most parents do. "Grandpa went to heaven to live with Jesus and now he can do cartwheels and ...." was enough for them. They hadn't been close with him because of space distance and it wasn't very traumatic for them as such.

So after Alex died when the Child Life guy (our savior that day) told us that our children had arrived and were waiting for us a sense of panic washed over me. What would we tell them? "Just tell them the truth" said the Child Life guy. "Children have a keen way of making whatever you are upset about their fault" he said, "it's best to just come out with it".

So we walked into the room and Craig sat on the sofa and I sat on the chair. I just looked for a minute at my children, noticing the anticipation in their eyes. I remember thinking "oh no, they think it's GOOD news" by the excitement that seemed to be coming from them.

I don't know how or why, but I just blurted it out

"Alex had to go live with Jesus"

And the world once again went into slow motion. I saw Little C run over to his dad as the tears sprung from his eyes. Hailey came to me. I was numb. It was the hardest thing I've ever had to do, hands down.

"You did a good job" the Child Life guy said to me as we walked out of the room. But I felt anything but good. I felt like I had just single-handedly ripped my children's hearts from their chest. And I had.

That day my children gained a premature understanding of their own mortality. Children die. What once seemed to them like something that only happened to old people, now became something that could happen to them. In the blink of an eye their sense of peace and safety was gone.

Of course the youngest, Jack, didn't really get it. Always asking us to buy baby Awex whatever cute shoes were on the rack at the store and asking when Awex was going to come home. He was only 4, after all and the idea that people could go away forever and never come back was beyond what he was capable of understanding completely.

Could I have prepared my children better? I don't think so. I don't think they could have come even close to grasping the concept without living through it.

I do know that we chose not to shield them from any of it. I remember being a child and not being allowed to attend my uncle's funeral and as such I had no concept of death. I knew that he was gone, but I didn't graps the finality of it.

Our children held their brother's body. They wrote him notes and attended his funeral and burial. In being included in those steps they gained understanding, and maybe some acceptance.

If your children bring up the subject of death be as honest as you can be without scaring them. Take them to a beautiful cemetary and show them where bodies go when people die. Share your beleifs about the afterlife with them. Don't freak out when they ask questions you don't want to answer, accept the opportunity. I only wish I had taken the time to do prepare my children what little I could.

I think talking about death with children scares us so much more than them because we can't bear the thought ourselves that someday they might die. What do you think?

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