by REBECCA SPARROW
I’d just put a forkful of turkey and stuffing in my mouth when she asked the question.
Do children die?
It was not the question I was expecting my four year old to ask me over Christmas Day lunch. But she asked it and as I attempted not to choke on my food and wondered if shouting “Oh my God, I just saw Dora outside!” would distract her, I realised I had to answer.
“Yes,” I said. “They do sometimes. But mostly people die when they are really, really, really old.”
“Like 100?” she said.
“Yes,” I lied.
“When you’re 100, are you as big as a giant?”
“Well, no. Because giants aren’t real. They’re just in storybooks.”
“Hmm.” And with that, the moment was over and Ava went back to pretending her beans were a group of people who appeared to talk in a Scottish accent.
And I went back to shoveling way too much food into my mouth and wondering exactly how many roast potatoes is, you know, too many roast potatoes to have on my plate.
But of course the moment wasn’t over. And for the next few hours and days and weeks, Ava continued to ask me questions about death. Did it hurt? Why did people die? Was I going to die? If Grandpa is really, really old then is he going to die soon?
And it made me realise how completely unprepared I was for these conversations. Well, unprepared in the sense that I wanted to answer in a way that wasn’t going to frighten or distress her. And yet, I also wanted to tell Ava the truth.
What’s interesting is that despite the fact that I have spoken to Ava about death continually for the past two years (following the stillbirth of her little sister Georgie in 2010) it’s as though none of those conversations ever really registered. Until now.
So when she asked me if children die, I reminded her that Georgie had died as a baby. It was a reminder to me that sometimes, you can think your child has taken something in when actually they haven’t. This became particularly evident to me when I overheard Ava telling someone that her sister Georgie is now working as the Tooth Fairy. Somewhere along the way lines get crossed. Little kids in particular take on their own version of what they think they’re hearing.
The fact is, if you have children in your life – regardless of whether they are your own or not – you will be faced at some point with questions about death. A family member or friend or pet may pass away. An item on the news (like the recent school shooting in the US) prompts a conversation around the family dinner table.
So as adults, how do we broach the topic without scaring the living daylights out of our kids?
In search of answers that weren’t coming naturally to me, I decided to go to three experts in the area to get their advice and guidance on how exactly we should talk to our kids about death. Here’s what they had to say …
1. Dr Emma Harley: Child Psychologist
Generally children can develop a bit of a preoccupation or start to be curious and ask questions about death around age 3-5. Younger than that age, children tend to have difficulty forming concepts of death.
At this age, it’s important to be very clear and open, as children tend to form their own fantasies based on fragments of what we say and they hear adults discuss, or they imbibe from television etc.
It’s difficult to do harm by saying too much – generally children will filter anything they don’t want to hear and stick to their fantasy version if they’re not ready to process what you tell them. The only concern is when adults are very emotionally uncontained themselves in the discussion – that will be stressful for the child.
So essentially, it’s important in a calm, relaxed manner to be able to provide accurate, honest information to a child about what has happened to someone who’s died – to be honest in explaining that yes, we all die one day, but to be able to say that at present there is no concern about the child or adult in their life dying.
Children this age might want very specific details about how people die or how someone has died and it’s ok to provide details within reason about how ‘the body wears out when we get old’ or whatever the case may be. If there has been a very traumatic death, it is then appropriate to shield a child from details. With adolescents it is probably important to share all details and provide a forum for sharing of emotions etc.
Often, parents use ‘going to sleep’ as a metaphor for dying, which can sometimes backfire a bit as some children can then become afraid of bedtime or sleep. It’s better to find either a spiritual metaphor or statement (i.e. of heaven or reincarnation if that’s the belief you wish to share); to express honestly that you don’t know what happens when we die and share some different opinions; or to provide a natural ‘cycle of life’ explanation regarding life and death in the natural world.
Most children don’t tend to become anxious about their own death (or more aware of that fact) until around 12 onwards, at which point they can experience some anxiety. From about age 7 or 8, children can also worry they might have been the cause of someone’s death – i.e. did grandpa die because I was mean to him? – so it’s important again, to be very clear about causes and explain it’s not anyone’s fault. Regarding suffering – I think as a child gets older it’s important to be honest and say that sometimes things can hurt, but that usually no, it does not hurt.
Generally, the degree to which you as a parent are comfortable with death and dying, will be what has the greatest impact on your child. Being able to talk openly, without fear, and a sense of acceptance is most reassuring to a child. Be yourself and talk openly, even about your not being sure how to discuss the topic – children understand and appreciate an honest, collaborative discussion.
My approach as a clinician is always to say that different people think different things about what happens when die and share some of those things – and to admit it’s a hard one to get one’s head around – that sometimes it can feel scary to think about but that I think it’s really going to be ok when the time comes.
Again, children usually tend to firmly make up their own mind anyway. They’re usually looking to us more to gauge how anxious we are, and for reassurance that difficult things like death can be openly discussed and emotions safely shared.
2. Petrea King: Author and Founding Director of Quest for Life Foundation
Should you do it BEFORE they are confronted with it in their own family or inner circle?
If nature is used as a teacher about death and transition from an early age, it makes it easier to explain death when it occurs within the family.
Children are fabulous are overhearing conversations or noticing if they stop when the child enters a room. They are however, very poor at putting information into perspective or interpreting what they’ve heard as they don’t have a large amount of experience to draw upon.
Death needs to be normalised by our willingness to incorporate the topic into our everyday conversations rather than with hushed voices. Children find secretiveness and hushed tones very difficult to deal with.
We are often only as comfortable talking about death as we feel about death. If we ourselves are scared of such topics then we run the risk of passing that fear along to our young people.
How do you ensure that a child doesn’t become fearful of death?
The more that the cycles of life and nature are described to children the less fearful they will be of death. It is also helpful for parents to resolve their own fears around death as your confidence and acceptance will be a huge comfort to your children. An acceptance and healthy expression of our feelings of sadness, loss, grief and upset also empowers children with the skills to be emotionally literate.
Children often need to be protected from witnessing the full force of your grief as they can feel that they have not only lost someone through death, but have also ‘lost’ their parent through emotional intensity that doesn’t allow space for the child.
The rainbow ritual is a fabulous tool to help children feel emotionally connected to people that have died. Click here to access it.
3. Reverend Rob Packer: Uniting Church
Talking to children about dying can be very challenging. Not only are the concepts around life, death and faith complex, they are also challenging to talk about because they impact us as parents deeply.
At every funeral I conduct the introduction includes the phrase “While death is the end of our physical life, it marks a new beginning in our eternal relationship with God.” This mystery gives hope to many, and is a good starting point in talking with children about death.
I find two things need to be kept in balance and talked about: hope and grief. Grief has many components, but sadness and loneliness are what children relate to most easily.
I find it helps to ask how they are feeling, to explore with them what’s going on, rather than telling them how they should feel. To share that you are sad that Grandma, or their school friend, is no longer with us gives them permission to feel and talk about their sense of loss. The loneliness for children is more about how things don’t feel right because the person is missing from their life.
The biggest challenge with grief is getting people to talk about it and face it, rather than try to tough it out. Sweeping it aside is simply unhealthy. It is no different with children. Often when adults want to ‘protect’ children from grief it seems to be more keeping it at arms’ length for themselves. If a family is grieving, to isolate children from it only confuses them.
The hope of the Christian faith is that there is life beyond the physical realm, that the person who has died, or is dying, does not cease to exist when their body gives up. There are some variations on this, but many trust that in death those who love and have not rejected God are welcomed into God’s presence. This gives an added meaning to life, and the promise of the relationship continuing at some point in the future.
Some care is needed here with children to avoid an unhealthy fascination with death. How we describe this is important. To say God has taken someone can lead to anxiety about who’s next. Better to talk about God taking care of people, including those who have died.
Most often dying comes after a lot of living. The death of an infant, child or younger person is far less common, and often more difficult to process and accept. To emphasise that there is usually a lot of living to be enjoyed before we face death ourselves is important. That keeps the focus on life without avoiding and focusing on the reality of death.
Faith not only relates to the destiny of those who face death, it also helps us through life. An important aspect of faith is that we are not alone when someone we love is dying, or has died. God is with us, unseen, but beside us offering comfort and strength.
Faith gives us hope in the face of death. Talked about carefully with children it gives them opportunities to share sadness and uncertainty; it also enables us to celebrate the life of those we grieve. By talking with and listening to our children we give them confidence in our care for them and their value to us. That is always important.
How would you talk to your kids? What have you said to them?