In the last month our family was deeply rocked by death. A senior member of our immediate family, after a yearlong battle with an unforgiving illness, gave into the inevitable and died. My wife and I were both saddened and philosophical about this person’s demise, and were left to contend with our own grief and make sense of it for our young son as well. He was naturally very, very curious about it all.
Some parents believe that exposure to the darkness and myriad of feelings associated with death is too much too soon for many young children and that children are best given the most sanitized version of death, or kept in the dark altogether. The fear is that the child will be confused or possibly traumatized by the death of a friend or relative. While I agree that it, being death, can be tricky terrain to navigate with a child, the rich teaching moment that is death cannot compare to virtually any momentous occurrence in life (OK, maybe the birth of a child trumps death in the realm of teaching moments, but it holds a close second).
The fact is (not to be too rudimentary) but death is such an intrinsic part of life that it cannot, and should not, be overlooked. While the idea that a child could look at the world and see only life is a nice, if not deeply erroneous, idea, but death is really everywhere and deserves to be noted, by adults and children alike. And children (granted this is depending on the child) are naturally curious about death (whether it be relating to a shriveled leaf or a person who has given up the ghost) and will embrace the difficult truths of mortality if given the chance and guidance to do so. My son, who had our devoted frankness and honesty throughout this experience, was able to express sadness, curiosity and even humor in relationship to this death in the family. It was something we were all driven to discuss, and honestly, having a young child there that needed that engagement really helped move everyone through the grief in an honest and direct way. In a sense it is about building perspective for everyone involved and an inherent gratitude for life, as much a deep regard for death – the great equalizer of all things. As writer JD Roberto said it best, “Knowing how good you have it builds gratitude and, in my experience, it’s unusual for a person that dwells in gratitude to dwell in unhappiness.”
There are dozens of books out there to help adults broach the subject of death with children – some of them more effective and respectful than others. I would recommend Lifetimes by Brian Mellonie and the poignant autobiographical tale of Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs by Tomie dePaola (author of Strega Nona).
Have you had to delve into the subject of death with your young child? If so, what worked, what didn’t? Do you believe young children should be spared from such a difficult subject? Have you had personal experiences (from childhood or adulthood) that really colored your view of death? What would you have wanted to hear or be told in those situations?