Sad Isn't Bad - Talking With A Child About Loss & Death
My first brush with loss was when I was 16 and in the 10th grade in school. When you are young, life is like a playground where you chance upon people whom you know you will never see or talk to again. You also meet those rare people whom you at first sight know that they are meant to be in your life forever. My first ever serious relationship was with one such person who did not know that forever was not in his cards. Neither did I.
11 months into our relationship, God took him from us and that was a defining moment for me. The grief started to speak, and I remember wondering if I could have prepared myself better all those years by equipping myself with all the emotions death gives rise to. But how can you possibly prepare yourself for something you didn't know would happen?
I remember asking myself that often in the days following the passing of a person who had been such an integral part of my life. The concept of death and loss seemed completely new to me and at 16, I was still an impressionable teenager who was still learning the ways of the world.
After experiencing something like this, I was left with a soul-crushing impression that attachment was to be feared and not embraced. Growing up my parents encouraged me to be independent and taught me everything I needed to survive in the cut-throat world, but I don't remember conversations on dealing with loss taking place.
Now 20 years, subsequent relationships, a wonderful husband and 2 children later, the views of attachment have finally been reversed. I have realised that talking to our children when they are young about death is crucial. I would never wish for them to fear getting into a relationship and forming attachments like I did for a long time.
When a person close to you loses a loved one, you mourn their loss with them. At a time like that you almost feel invincible and thank god for everyone and everything in your life. Deep down you pray that it never happens to you or anyone you love.
As parents, our number one goal is to protect our children from any heart ache or challenges that they may face. When our parents were busy raising us, it would never have occurred to them to talk to bring up such a topic. Parenting seemed to be more straightforward and simple back then. Modern parenting however is geared towards awareness and raising our kids with every quality possible to survive real life. Life is designed in such a way that death and loss is a part of each person's journey. The most we can do is prepare our children from the time they are young by having age-appropriate conversations. It is human to avoid uncomfortable topics with our them and postpone talking to them with an easy justification that "they are anyway too young to understand." Children form their own impressions and judgements if we do not explain it to them ourselves. They have their peers to turn to. Death and loss is not a topic that we can leave open to interpretation with them so addressing this with them as early on as possible is key.
Last year, a homework assignment for my now 4.5 -year-old's class was to create a family tree. He had to stick pictures of his immediate family and talk about them. My husband lost his father when he was 18-years-old, so this particular assignment led to numerous questions from my son about his paternal grandfather, whom he had never met. He wanted to know where he had gone and why. Why was it that some people were still left here on earth while God took others earlier? We explained that being very sad and even for a long time is not bad; it is in fact normal when you lose someone you love. He started to worry that his parents would go to God soon as well, and this is where a great deal or reassurance is required. We had to reinforce again and again that he would always be taken care of and someone would always be there to love him. The conversation was delicate of course but only the truth was told.
A few weekends ago, we watched The Lion King together for the first time. I was forced to turn it off half hour into the movie when Simba's father died. My son was upset that he had died and wanted him to come back.
That was the moment for me to explain that death is permanent, a concept which children will take years to understand, but it is never too late to start.
There are so many easy ways to squash a conversation with children about death if questions arise. I have heard others say that a loved one has gone to sleep or gone out of town and they don't know when they will be back. While evading questions may seem like the logical thing to do, what expectations are we setting? Simply speaking, what happens when that person does not come back? We tend to forget that we are our children’s first teacher and our words matter. The truth matters. Talk to them about what they will feel and how they can deal with those emotions. Tell them that even though a person many not be physically present, they are still there in all the things around them.
The long - term benefits of having the death and loss conversation with our children when they are young are tremendous. It is okay to have doubts of our own and to say we don't know to questions they ask. Honesty is always appreciated by children and the more upfront we are about what we know and don't know, the better. This is a topic which cannot be spoken about once and tossed aside, rather it can be returned to again. It is important to remember that if we don't explain it to them, they will imagine and create a story of their own. What they imagine can set the foundation for what they believe and expect to experience later in their own lives. So, if you haven't already spent a few minutes talking about death with your child, do so soon. There is a difference between protecting and sheltering and sheltering them from what they will inevitably experience will only hinder them. Protect them by preparing them.