This post is both, personal and professional. After five short paragraphs, there are thoughts on how to talk to children about death.
My apologies to readers who have visited over the last week expecting to find new posts. I have not found the time to write as I was dealing with an intense personal loss- that of my Grandmother. She was 89. She had a zest for life, was loved by all and for me, was my first experience with an adult figure (I have the notion that for children their parents are not ‘adults’ – they are just Mom and Dad).
Under Hindu custom, the body of the dead is bathed and clothed and then burned to ashes in a holy funeral pyre. The ashes are then taken to the Ganges (considered the bestower of wisdom and the purgator of sin) and offered to the river. After this, it is believed, the soul leaves for its Eternal Home.
We didn’t have a close relationship, Dadi and I. She stayed in Assam, four hours away by an airliner. I saw her for a few days once every two years, maybe three. Yet, as I, with my uncles and cousins bathed her body before the Final Journey, I was choked with emotion. I missed her.
Thoughts about Death and Dying flooded my mind. I imagined my parents on their dying day. I imagined them breathing their last and me setting fire to their pyres. I imagined myself being laid down similarly a few decades from now by yet unborn children and grandchildren.
I thought about my nieces. How would they react to Dadi‘s death? Their parents had decided not to bring them to the funeral so I couldn’t speak to them one-on-one, but if I could, what would I say? What is the best way to speak to children about Death? Below I have reproduced some thoughts (in random order) that I had on the day of Dadi‘s death:
1. There are different ways to talk to children at different ages. But one thing is probably a constant. As with almost all things, being upfront and honest about what has happened is often the best way to deal with Death. Sure, we must break the news gently, but the news must be expressed clearly instead of being clouded with ambiguous terms like “long trip”, “far away”, “in the sky” etc. Protecting our children by not sharing the facts with them is certainly not the right thing to do, because this leaves them confused, bottled up and unable to express themselves.
2. Children know about Death before we think they do. They may not comprehend the finality of death- at younger ages most children think that this process must surely be magically reversible or that that the departed is around, maybe not at home, but just around the corner somewhere or on some kind of holiday and will be back soon – but know that death as a concept exists. They see death on TV, hear of it at school (friend’s relatives, pets etc), maybe even act it out in their own role-plays.
If the death is anticipated, it is probably better to speak to the child before it happens. This will allow the child to share & express love and emotion towards the departed and make the parting easier.
3. Allow the child to tell you what she thinks happens to people when they grow old. Where has Dadi gone? Listen carefully and clarify any misconceptions children may have. With younger children parables, analogies, metaphors would probably work best. Provide short, clear answers. Do not overwhelm them. Check on what they have understood. This can be critical as often understanding may be muddled.
4. Talk to the child when you and she both are comfortable.
5. Hearing about death for the first time, children may become insecure about their parents and wonder if they too will die soon. Assure them that their parents are not going anywhere soon. When I was 6, my parent’s attended the funeral of a distant relative. A few days later, Mom was prescribed spectacles for the first time. When I saw her with the glasses perched on her nose, I started crying for I thought that meant that she too would die soon.
6. Assure the child that She has nothing to do with the death– it was not her fault. Likewise, assure her that the person in question did not die because she was a bad person. Children have the proclivity to equate death with being a ‘bad person’.
7. Express your own feelings about the death, maybe even relate your feelings when you were a child and a close relative died.
8. Some children may not react as we expect. They may displace their feelings through anger, loss of appetite, attention deficiency. They may not talk and express themselves openly but may provide signals about their feelings through drawings, role-plays etc. It will help to be watchful and patient, talking to the child as necessary.
9. Make sure that the school and parents talk. You don’t want the teacher at school and the parents at home to give the child confusing, or worse, contradictory signals about Death and Dying.
Lastly, I’d like to reemphasise honestly and directness. I know of a family where a child was told his Grandfather (who he shared a room with) had “gone to sleep forever”. The child was frightened of nightfall, was afraid to go to sleep and started wetting his bed at the age of 9. It would have been best if he had been explained this in a sensible and clear manner.
I have limited experience of dealing with children who’ve lost a relative; this list is certainly not complete. This topic is important to me, I’d appreciate your comments and suggestions about how best it can be handled.
Rest in Peace, Dadi.