Today I find myself on a very long car ride with the family for what will likely prove to be a very emotional weekend. Originally, our adventure was purely for pleasure including a stay at a hotel with a pool and a family wedding in the mountains. As my oldest daughter LOVES weddings (or the fairy tale version of most that she has read about) she is most excited to attend this; it will be her first. As I said this was the original plan, but a sad turn of events has added to our long weekend away and we are now including a memorial service for a very dear friend of mine. This tragedy has already had me in a bit of a mess and as I watch the lines on the highway drift by, I am thinking more about death and marriage and how my own children will deal with these emotionally opposite events in the upcoming days.
My friend, who passed with his daughter in a fire, has been a pretty special friend for the past 20 or more years. Although we may go for a few years without seeing each other, we have always known deep down that we care deeply for each other. To my own children however, they have never met this friend. They only see the sadness that I am feeling, which I do not hide. While I do not intend to take my children with me to the Celebration of Life Ceremony, they will still feel and see my emotions flex and change over the next day or so and it is important to me that I approach the subject of death in a way that they get the most benefit from this experience; without fear.
Before I continue, I would like to say that I believe the diversity in religious beliefs are what make our civilization strongest. We are not a culmination of people on the same boat ride. That would make us one big ship of fools. Instead, we all hold our own beliefs about death and about life for that matter and I teach my children the importance of respecting other people’s beliefs while leaving the door open for them to make their own determinations about life and death when they are emotionally and intellectually ready. The goal of my following words about death and talking to children about death are in no way meant to criticize or disrespect anybody’s personal beliefs on the subject.
As with most children, my children have been exposed to death on some level on many occasions in life so far. We’ve seen bugs die, there have been the unfortunate spider squashing incidences (these occur no matter how much we push for putting the creatures out the door), we have gardens that live and die each season and our oldest has dealt with the loss of several family pets-all of natural causes. We speak openly in our house about death. There is an understanding that all things that are alive, will die. And while everything does in fact die, I wonder what that statement really means to my 5 year old.
We have 2 family dogs buried in our woods and she often asks if we can dig them up to see their bones which tells me that she understands to a degree the permanence of death. We have tried to keep communication open by never disregarding her questions or telling her that any question is inappropriate. We never want death to become taboo in our house. Most of all we are always willing to say that we don’t have the answers. Quite simply; nobody knows. My favorite line at times is “I wonder about that too, but no one knows for sure.”
Just as there are phrases that we use when talking to children about death, there are also phrases that I avoid. Children sense our doubts and even the smallest of white lies can create distrust. Saying that death is like “going to sleep for a long time” is just setting your child up for future sleeping disorders and simplifying death as the deceased “went away” can be equally confusing as many people in a child’s life go away and still come back. Obviously this would not be the case when a loved one dies. Let your child take the lead and ask the questions. Give answers that you can believe in yourself. It is also perfectly okay to tell your child that “no one knows for sure, but I like to believe…” It is important emotionally for your child to feel comfortable talking about death as well as using it in imaginative play. Even if their question seems completely inappropriate, you need to respect a child’s curiosity and give the best answers a parent can give; honest ones.
As for my family’s journey this weekend, I plan to include my children in my emotional journey (even though they will not be with me at every moment) to show them that joy and sadness do not have to limit each other. To show them that it is okay to mourn just as it is okay to love and to be happy or sad. The wedding will be an event they will never forget; that is for sure.
How do you talk to children about death in your home? How do you talk about love?
Nature Is Random…So Are These