In the UK certainly, it isn’t the norm for children to see dead bodies and very few have any idea of what ‘dead’ looks like. I know too, people can get stuck on the ‘what happens to us after we die, where do we go?’ question. Everyone has different views and beliefs about death, which I think is important to tell children. Children do talk at school, and young ones in particular might find it difficult to know how to respond if their beliefs are challenged.
I can’t remember how old I was exactly, but there was a death in the village. I remember climbing up on to my dad’s lap and firing questions to him about it. He was very patient, and answered all my questions over and over again, while my young head struggled to grasp what ‘dead’ meant.
I decided very early on in my parenting career that I would answer any questions asked, in an age appropriate manner and not avoid or fudge around any subject. Talking about death is a ‘biggy’, as none of us truly know what it feels like to die or how to explain it from the deceased’s point of view. The last thing you want to do is scare your children, or make them feel like either you or they are about to drop dead at any moment. Or worse … make them feel panicky or worried about going to sleep.
Anticipating the subject coming up at some point and wanting the kids to have some sort of tangible understanding of death before someone they knew and loved died, I always kept an eye out for dead animals while we were out and about…worms, mice, birds … anything!
When the children were very small, we had the initial discussion over a dead mouse on the pavement one day back from the park. There was lots of peering and we were there for ages. I asked them whether it looked like the mouse was just sleeping to them and they said no it didn’t ‘because it wasn’t moving even a tiny bit, or breathing’. We stared at it for quite a while and then I found a stick so they could gently try and move it and see for themselves that it was all stiff and different to our warm, soft and mobile bodies. I asked if they could think of a word to describe it and if it wasn’t sleeping, what would they say instead? They thought and then our eldest simply said, ‘it’s stopped Mummy.’ I asked them if the mouse looked sad about it and after even more peering they decided ‘it didn’t look happy or sad.’
So then we translated it to people and that when people die they just stop too. I explained that people die when their body breaks too much to work, just like the mouse. I explained that it’s different to when they’re sick or if they were to break a leg or something and it’s definitely not like being asleep. They took it all in their stride, asked a few questions and then suddenly lost interest and asked if it was lunch time. As kids do!
The next notable ‘talking to our kids about death’ occasion was when we went to visit ‘Granny’ in America. Our (then 4 year old) daughter and I went for a walk and a talk and we suddenly spotted a lump in the road up ahead. As we got closer, we saw it was a red squirrel that had been run over. It wasn’t a pretty sight but not one to turn down an opportunity, I thought would also be a good lesson in road safety!
We went to investigate and as we both looked, two middle aged couples walked past. They were shaking their heads and me and as they hurried past, one of them said ‘you shouldn’t be showing your child this, you should be ashamed!’
Luckily I had my wits about me (usually I have that ‘oh I wish I’d said such and such) and I said ‘our job as parents is to teach our children about the world. It doesn’t do anyone any good to be brought up in a plastic world lined with cotton wool. How’s that going to prepare anyone for anything?!’
Frustratingly they didn’t respond!
We continued to look, we discussed road safety, we discussed what dead looks like physically, we discussed anatomy & physiology, we discussed why some people might think we shouldn’t look at squashed squirrels and we discussed why I’d said what I’d said…
When we’d had enough, we carried on our walk & talk and our daughter decided the drains at the side of the road were actually fairy houses.
So we had a lovely long chat about fairies all the way home…
Children are far more robust than we think and they can grasp more than we often give them credit for. There is absolutely no doubt that there is always a deep sadness when you lose someone you love but I do think that understanding what death ‘is’ can really help with the grieving process.
I would really love to hear how you’ve broached the subject and if you can recommend any good books for children on the subject? Please do leave a comment below, thank you! x
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