Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Why you should talk to your kids about death

Cementery Angel
{Photo Credit Ryan Opaz }

Death and dying is a natural part of life, every living thing (whether they want to acknowledge it or not) will at sometime die.

Is it pretty?

Is it fun?

Is it something anyone likes?


It is however the reality of life.

Many parents seem to struggle with what, how, and when to talk to their children about death. It’s not easy or fun, but no one told you parenting would be. As a mother who has had to explain the death of another mother and a sibling to a small child I can tell you it is definitely easier to not talk about it. To brush it off with story books or cliches “they’re in a better place, they’re asleep, etc.”. As that same mother I want to tell you that, is not okay. You do a disservice not only to your child, but to those that they interact with when you don’t tell them the truth.

I realize that this is easy for me to say because I am a Christian. I have faith that death is not the end and I will live on in Heaven. I know that makes it easier for me to explain it to my kids. They hear the stories form the Bible, they understand it in this way too. They are comforted and can completely understand that their baby brother, great grandma, friends mom etc, is with Jesus. It doesn’t make the conversation easy. It doesn’t stop them from asking questions like Why? We do our best to comfort them and answer their questions and move on.

I honestly don’t know how or what you say to a child that asks about death if you do not believe in salvation. I think the best approach is to tell them the truth of whatever you believe. That you don’t know what happens, that we turn into birds, stars, whatever. The most important thing you can impart on your children is that death is permanent. You don't come back, to this world, in this form, from death.

I have read articles and studies that say in today’s modern society the permanence of death is something children are not grasping. It’s been blamed on video games and violent shows. They say kids today don’t understand that when something dies it’s gone forever because their favorite characters in games and on TV come back again and again and again. This is what parents are for. As a parent if you choose to allow your children to watch shows or play games where things are being killed it is your job to teach them that this is a game or show and in reality death is permanent.


Because your children do not live in a bubble.

They go to school with my children. They play at the park with my children.

Because when you don’t explain something to them or when you keep it a mystery it becomes exciting and funny and forbidden. Nothing is exciting or funny about death. When you don’t give them answers they make up on their own. Sometimes those answers can hurt or scare someone else, probably without knowing.

I know, because that is what happened this morning.

We go to a Christian school attached to a church. It is filled with good, loving, parents. Parents who have been blessed enough in their life to not had to have had the tough conversations about death and dying that I have had to have with my child in the past year. This morning they were setting up for a funeral at our church. When we got into the classroom two little boys ran up to my son oh so excited to share their news.

Monkey! Monkey! Did you Hear?” they said “someone died, right here in the basement”
“Smell that smoke? Someone was smoking, it was kindergartner, or a preschooler, and they died, just like that right here
“Did you hear, did you hear, there is someone dead right down here, I think it’s a kindergartner”.

My son looked up at me confused, bewildered, with the sad look of worry I know too well in his eyes. See death is not fun to him, he knows children really do die. He believed his friends. Was their reaction wrong? No, it was pretty age appropriate (I think) for a child who doesn’t know what a funeral is, and who has probably never heard about or experienced death.

I don’t fault them for their enthusiastic reaction, to them a funeral (again, assuming they don’t know what one is) is something different and exciting happening at school. They are after all only five, and different is exciting. I am sure the morning went something like this, they asked what the smoke (incense) was for and their parent said “a funeral”. What’s a funeral? was the likely response and the parent answers “oh it’s something the church does when you die, now come on into your class” rushing them along and changing the subject.

It wasn’t done out of ignorance, or to be hurtful. Just a busy frazzled parent (like me) who doesn’t have time for a deep conversation. I know, I have been that parent. I have brushed off serious questions when in a hurry or when it wasn't the right time or place, like school drop off. Thankfully the teacher did have time, and she took the boys aside and explained it to them and I explained to my son that no child had died, all his kindergarten friends would be in class.

The boys reaction is why it’s so important for death to be something that you are not afraid to discuss. It shouldn't be put off until stressful hurried situations, or worse, when it happens. When you are watching TV or playing video games with your children and the character dies you can start it right there. “Good thing this is just a game/tv show because you know in real life death is permanent, you don’t come back”. I can assure you, when talked about in casual conversation it will not become something hard and uncomfortable, confusing or scary. Your child may ask a question or two, or they may shrug it off and move on.

The truth is death should not be a secret that adults keep hidden waiting for the “right time” to introduce it to their child. There is no “right” time. It just part of life, like the sun coming up in the morning or the trees shedding their leaves in the fall. We need to start teaching it to our children as a part of life. Not something secret or scary.

Because we do not live in a bubble.

Because death hurts. It leaves scars on the hearts of those it touches. You can’t see those scars from the outside and you don’t know who bears them. They can be easily reopened by a child who doesn’t understand and says something they don’t mean.

Linked up with the darling Shell


sheara121 said...

thank you so much for this post. my son is only 16 weeks, and this conversation won't be necessary until he's old enough to understand, whenever that is, but it's helpful to have this insight now, and be able to think about how to broach the subject. *hugs* i am so, so sorry for your loss. i'm not a christian, but you're in my thoughts and prayers just the same :)

Shell said...

It is so hard to talk about death with kids.

I never thought about the video game thing and how that could make it seem less real and permanent to kids.

Last Thanksgiving, my boys' great-grandfather died. Only my oldest could comprehend any of it and we told him that great-grandpa got really old and really sick and died and went to Heaven.

We chose not to have the kids go to the funeral b/c we were worried that after all the talk about him going to Heaven, they would be disturbed by seeing his body at the service.

Maybe the coward's way out. Or maybe age-appropriate. I still am not sure about the way that we handled it.

And it worries me to think about having to explain other deaths to them- of people who didn't get "really old and really sick" before they die.

Definitely a lot to think about in your post.

Kate said...

i really like this post. we went to a memorial service in january and my kids were clueless as to why we were there. there was no church service, no going to a cemetery. it wasn't a relative that they've met (i hadn't even met dave's grandfather!). but i know one day we will have to take them to a funeral and i will have to come back to this post to help myself deal with their comprehension of the situation.

i am sorry your son understands the sadness of the situation, but it is good, because it means he has such a good and communicative mother!

Renegades said...

My Aunt who my kids called Grandma died in June after a 10 month battle with cancer. The gift she gave them? Her belief that she was in fact going on to a better place. That she would miss us and miss seeing them grow, but she belived.

We took them to view her body. Talked about her and our youngest wanted to touch her. I explained she would be cold because her soul wass gone and now we just had her body.

The best book was a gift to the kids that was titled Grandpa What's Heaven Like. It incorporates Bible verses and tells it in story form so young children can understand it.

Kate Pantier @ Mommy Monologues said...

Since becoming a mom the reality of death has been on my heart and mind a lot. The reality that death happens for everyone, even my child will (hopefully) grow into an old man and pass away.

It makes me question everything, God, Jesus, the Saints and Angels, why do I believe it all to be real, why do others not, why do I get to live today, why do other mothers die tragically or young children?

The beauty of becoming a parent is that you realize that Life is beautiful and amazing and at the same time you realize how fragile it all can be.

This is a good post & my children as they get older will definitely learn the truth behind death. I think the beauty of being Christian is that the explanation is somewhat easier.

Kim said...

I think this is an important topic. My brother passed away recently and we haven't explained it to our toddler. He just doesn't understand. But there will be a day when we will have this conversation.

Carrie said...

I think you are so right - and another BIG reason to explain death to our children - we can't really even share the gospel with them until they begin to understand death! Why would they need to be saved from an eternity in hell if they don't understand death?

I recently tackled the topic of death with my son (he's almost 3, I know that sounds young, but he's very communicative & curious for his age). We had two kittens who both passed away a week after we got them - it was so sad! But I told him honestly that they had died and would not be coming back (and I told them that they had gone to Heaven, if that's wrong, then we'll find out when we get there, right?). I think it is just so important to be open and honest with our kids about these serious topics - they can handle it, and as you mentioned, they need to be able to!

Oh, how I wish your sweet son didn't have to experience the pain of death in your family, though! :(

Melissa said...

This is so important, and I found it was much less scary than I thought it would be when my grandpa died this summer. Yes, my 3 year old and I had lots of discussions since she would ask questions about it over and over again, but I just answered them as honestly as I could.
And you are right, their is something creepy about games where the person dies violently and then magically gets a new life.

Gretchen said...

Wow, great post. I think you really hit the nail on the head. I think that kids need to hear from adults about death so that they have a clear picture in their minds about what's going on and why. Parents who care enough to do this will find the words that are kind and gentle. I think kids are very smart and very perceptive. They will understand even if parents do a less than perfect job explaining. Death is a touchy subject but it doesn't have to be. Plus, the more topics parents bring up to their children, the more doors it opens for communication in general.

Great post!