How to talk to your child about death

I may be making a big assumption here, but I would say that most people’s first memory involves something pleasant—being held by someone who loves them, riding a fun ride at an amusement park, meeting a new sibling, getting a puppy, receiving toys for Christmas, riding a bike, etc. My first memory involves nothing of the sort. In fact, it involves death. Death laid next to me and filled the air with dread for days as I struggled to get better.

When I was around four years old, I got very, very sick. To this day, I still don’t know what it was that made me so sick. Was it malaria? Meningitis? Typhoid fever? Or some other tropical disease? My parents wouldn’t tell me. All I know about that story is my parents’ decision to take me to the hospital which is what ultimately saved me.

I had been sick for about two weeks when they took me to a local clinic. The nurse there took one look at me and said, “If you don’t take her to the hospital, she will die.” My parents were poor. We didn’t have health insurance. In fact, we lived in a country that had literally no concept of healthcare—it was lackluster especially in our areas; thus, whenever one goes to the hospital for treatment, they would have to pay out of pocket. Never mind that, the nurse said. Her prophecy that I would die put my parents in a tough spot, and made an impression in their minds. “The prognosis is not good,” she told them. Finally, they decided to take me to the hospital where I stayed for several weeks.

While I stayed there, I remember seeing a little boy laying on the bed next to me. He didn’t move for hours. I thought it was strange so I asked the nurse on duty why that boy wasn’t moving.

“Oh honey,” she said with a painful look bordering on pity. “He’s gone.” It was my very first experience with death. I understood right away what she meant—her saddened face gave it away. What I didn’t understand though was why he was laying next to ME. After all, I was still alive.

Later, I learned that the hospital kept all of the really sick kids in one area, regardless of whether or not they were dead or alive. The dead ones were simply waiting for their families to make funeral arrangements and once that happened they would pick up the body.

So yes, I lived in a hospital that doubled as a morgue. The experience never left me feeling anything but sadness. I feel sad for that little boy, not so much older than I was, perhaps five or six, who died before he had a chance to become somebody. Many children died in Vietnam from poor healthcare and lack of nutrition in the late eighties / early nineties, and I was just one of them. But luckily I didn’t die. I got better and life moved on.

Fast forward to present day. It’s June 2019, and I have a six year old daughter now who’s never been really sick thanks to preventative healthcare that she was rewarded with from the moment she was born. (So lucky!) She comes to my husband and starts bawling because she’s been thinking about death.

“Huh,” I said when my husband told me of this conversation. He said that Lily went to him and asked him if when she’s dead, will she see him in heaven? This was no doubt a big girl question and none that I expected she would ask at this age. Because Lily has never truly been close to death as I was by her age, and because she’s never really lost a loved one (not YET), we haven’t talked to her at all about the idea of death.

How she suddenly began thinking about this concept is beyond me. What’s more, she’s having nightmares about it. This morning she came out of her bedroom at 6:45 a.m, which is earlier than normal, and began bawling about a nightmare that she had. I was more concerned with trying to calm her down so I didn’t fully hear what it was about. Then, later this afternoon, when she had another crying fit she went to her dad and told him of her fears regarding death.

It’s tough to think about ways to talk to your children about death, a topic so deep, so personal, and so convoluted that you’ve never thought about how you’re supposed to talk about it. I wanted to find out if there is any literature on how to approach the subject, or at the very least, a set of guidelines as to what to say to kids about death, so I turned to my friend Google and searched “how to talk to your kid about death.” And not surprisingly, most of what I discovered were articles on talking to your kids about death as an actual event. There were hardly any guidelines as to how to have that conversation about death before it actually happens.

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Surprise, surprise–the word divorce came up before death

“Cry. Cry together. Cry often. It’s healthy and healing,” says this article in Psychology Today. “Allow your child to participate in rituals. Let children pick clothing for your loved one, photos for the memorial, a song or spiritual reading,” it continues. Similarly another website’s advice — to allow the children to participate in rituals. Listen to their reactions. Let them cry if they want to. Tell them that it’s okay. Basically—do everything you can to comfort the child while also keep your emotions in check. Try not to show that you’re a wreck on the inside because you just lost a loved one.

Which is interesting to say the least—it makes me wonder why that is. Why is it that adults don’t talk to children about death BEFORE it happens? Why do we wait until an actual death occurs in the family before actually talking about it? Moreover, why are there no guidelines on how to talk about something that happens to everyone? Lastly, why are there conflicting information as to how to cope with death? Why should you bottle up your feelings and say things like “I don’t know “ when you know full well that the reason that person died was because of X, Y, and Z?

We certainly talk about life a lot. We give our kids the birds and the bees talk. And when we have another child and bring that baby home from the hospital we introduced the baby as a new life, a new addition to the family. Don’t you ever wonder if kids themselves are wondering how that baby came about?

According to this National Geographic article, studies have been done on children’s understanding of death shows that kids begin to grasp the idea at age 3, but do not grasp the full elements of death until age 5-7, that death is universal, death is irreversible and nonfunctional. Which certainly makes sense that at age six, Lily is starting to think about the concept of death even though she’s never lost a loved one…yet.

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Photo by Matthew T Rader on Unsplash

To be honest, I didn’t lose a loved one until I was about 9 years old. Both of my grandparents on my father’s side passed away within months of each other (my other grandparents were gone well before I was born). And I remember feeling sad, especially when my grandma died, because was a nice lady. She always told me that I was her favorite granddaughter, and I basked in the glow of her approval for me. It was only when I got older I realized that she probably said the same thing to all of her grandchildren to make them feel special. After all, with as many children as she had (she had 15 children total, 3 of them died in infancy) and each one of her children had their own children…well, I’ll let you do the math. Still, she was special to me because she was the only grandmother I had, the only one I knew.

Anyhow, when she passed away first, it put my grandfather in a complete utter state of shock which later turned into heartbreak. He couldn’t live without her and became quite reclusive and withdrawn. We’d like to say that he died of a broken heart. Regardless of whether or not that’s actually true, losing two grandparents in a single year was tough. I didn’t know what to make of it. But at the same time that I participated in the funeral festivities nobody really sat me down and explained that my grandparents were never coming back. Eventually I figured it out on my own.

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Photo by Mike Labrum on Unsplash

So far my daughter has not come to me directly to talk about death (although I feel like it’s going to happen any day how), I feel that I should be prepared to say a few things about it. But how do you talk to a child about a fear of hers that is also your own? How do you explain the depths of your fear, that you often feel like you have an enormous lump lodged in your throat every time you think about dying? That it sends a terrifying chill throughout your body and makes you as stiff as someone who is already dead? That you have to remember to take a deep breath before it takes your breath away?

These are the things that I can’t explain to her yet. At the same time I’m not surprised that she’s inherited my fear of death. However it’s not so much death itself that I’m afraid of–it’s the process of dying. I would be perfectly happy if one day I’m alive, and the next day I’m not; for whatever reason, I go quickly and have little time to experience the dying part. For example—if I’m going to die by drowning I don’t want to be sinking to the bottom of the ocean, lake, or river (or God forbid, pool), and have an awareness that I’m dying and that nobody is coming to save me. Likewise, if I’m getting stabbed and I’m bleeding to death, I wouldn’t want to feel the wrath of the person (or animal) that’s trying to kill me as I lay there hopelessly thinking about my impending death. It’s too gruesome to think about—the experience of torture, of dying slowly. This is perhaps influenced by my childhood experience in the hospital as a child almost close to death, and seeing death so close to me. To this day, I still can’t get the image out of my mind of that little boy—hopeless and dead, as well as other little children hopeless and dying.

Hopefully I will be able to figure it out soon.

 

Snow day 2019

Well, snow came and gone this weekend. Like a woman in labor, it began its descent in the early hours of Saturday morning, when we were all asleep, and we woke up to almost a feet of snow. So, what’s a mom to do but take her kids outside for fun in the snow?

Unfortunately, these two were the grumpiest Grinches you can possibly imagine. Not even five minutes in, they both started their whining. Lily began squealing at the top of her lungs (no doubt to get my attention) while James placed his feet firmly on the ground and refused to move. I managed to get the two of them into a toboggan and pulled them up and down a small hill, and snapped a few (grumpy-looking) photos on my phone.

We lasted almost an hour outside. Once inside, they played together and left me alone for almost an hour…which is ironic. Somehow they had a better time playing inside than outside. Oh well. I took advantage of the time and made bagels. My first time ever making bagels. I’m trying out new baking recipes this year–so far, this one I’m the most proud of. Personally, I love bagels and can eat them just about every day, so the thought of being able to make them (despite forgetting one ingredient, it still turned out good), and how simple it was, in terms of ingredients and technique made me excited. I will definitely do more bagel-making and experiment with a variety of flavors in the future.

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On a cold, snowy day what’s a girl to do but bake?

As the snow melted away by the sun this afternoon, I think about how glad I am that it’s over. Despite being in a dreary, cold and often wet part of the country, one of the good things about living in the Pacific Northwest is that we don’t get many days of snow. While the rest of the country is usually blasted with winds, snowstorms, and all kinds of extreme weather, we are sitting here with one day of snow, sometimes up to four, followed by some ice, and that’s it for the winter season. I hope this is it.

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Lily and I watched The Grinch while James took a nap

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The last time I saw my father

I don’t come from a superstitious background, and certainly do not consider myself a psychic of any kind, but there were several moments in my life where I felt like I could see into the future. One of those instances was the last time I saw my father.

It was early 2003, the year that I graduated from high school, and my father had been diagnosed with lung cancer. He was anything but stoic. Passionate, smart, and gregarious—that’s how I’ve always known him. He was what you would call “The life of the party.” But on that day at the airport in early 2003 (I forgot the month) when I went to say goodbye to him because he was going back to Vietnam for medical treatment, his face was forlorn, and I could sense a level of sadness in his eyes, I knew right then and there that it would be the last time that I would ever see him.

And I was right. He died several months after he left, in late April of 2003.

Now, as I write this 15 years later, in early January, during the month that he would’ve turned 77, I can’t help but feel angry. I’m angry because he told me a lie—that he would be back for my high school graduation. I’m angry that I foolishly believed he would get better. Little did I know that doctors gave him less than six months to live. (He was in the last stages of the cancer).

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Dad and me, when I was about 16

When he was alive, my dad was really good at promises—or rather, breaking them. It was something that truly irked me as a child and is still a pet peeve today. He’d tell me that he would do something for me, and later on, failed to follow through. Like the one time he told me that he would take me on an adventure in the city, only he didn’t have the proper accommodations lined up, so he gave up. Or the many times he said he would get me a gift, but he never did.

The one gift he did give me was love. I felt it in my very first memory. When I was about four years old, I became very ill. To this day, I’m not quite sure how I got so sick or what plagued me, but I do remember that he and my mom made the decision that saved my life—they took me to the hospital, where I stayed for almost two weeks, until I got better. It was during my time at the hospital where I remembered my father visiting me every single day (my mom was working all day), and each time he came he always brought soup. After all, soup is a healing agent, he believed. He also brought toys and candy, which made me very happy.

For all his caring acts aside, he was not a perfect man. He carried with him a history of alcoholism, prison time, infidelity, and the inability to hold down a job. Despite all of that, I didn’t held a grudge against him, because he was truly kind to everyone and committed to his community. He volunteered at our church frequently and always gave money to the less fortunate even though we were pretty poor ourselves.

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My father’s grave, circa 2009. What a bunch of grumps we are.

I came into the world to parents who were much older than average. My mom was nearing 40 and they already had two kids. Unlike the relationship he had with his sons, I felt like our relationship was different. My parents wanted a girl, and they got one. Thus, my father was never one to shy away from showing off his little girl. On his shoulder I went, and he’d swing me around our village as often as he pleased, which I’m certain is how I developed my fear of heights—being on his shoulder wasn’t as fun for me as it was for other kids. I was shy, timid, and scared. Mainly, I wanted to be left alone, to play by myself.

Not only that, he had a sense of humor that only exemplified his true comical nature. He was not afraid to play jokes on little kids. One of the jokes he always played on my cousins was calling them over to him with the promise of a “treat” and when they came, he would ask them to extend their hand, and when they did, he would let out an enormous (and often smelly) fart, which made them run to their moms and dads crying.

It sounds like a jerky thing to do, I know–we both knew it, but he and I always rolled over laughing. Deep down, I knew he would never do that to me, because I was his daughter.

I wish I knew more about his earlier life, but I don’t. I only know that he was the first child who survived out of the 15 or so siblings that his mom gave birth to. He had three older sisters who all died in infancy. Later on, he was married to my mom in an arrangement between their parents when he was in his late teens. I feel like his marriage with my mom is still something of a farce. He cheated on her with another woman and didn’t treat her very well when he was drunk, and I’m sure she was not an angel either, but they both learned to love each other over time.

Their love is the kind of strange love that I didn’t quite understand when I was younger. I don’t even know how I was conceived. They always told me it was a “miracle” from God.

It wasn’t until many years later, on the anniversary of his death, when out of the corner of my eye, I saw my mom hold back some tears that I understood the fact that their marriage lasted not because they were madly in love at first, but because they fell in love in the later years. My mom eventually forgave my dad for cheating on her, but she never forgot. She was angry at him for a long time.

Now, when I think back at that time at the airport in 2003, the last time I saw my father, I become angry at myself, as much as my mom was angry with me for not showing any emotion following his death. I’m angry because I didn’t tell him that I love him, and I didn’t hug him. I’m angry because our last exchange was him telling me to do well in school, and that he would be there for my graduation, because that was the last lie he ever told, the last promise he broke. But I wondered if he truly believed that. I think he did.

My mom doesn’t quite understand why I didn’t fall apart and cry over his death. When he left, I knew he would be gone forever so I developed a numbing mechanism, if you will. I pushed all the sad thoughts away and told myself that it is what it is—I couldn’t do anything about it. I was still mad at him for not taking care of himself. After all, if he had gone to the doctor sooner, or smoked less, or did this and that, then he would still be alive for my high school and college graduations.

Still, I don’t want to degrade the dead. I want people to know that he was a good father to me, that he did what he could, and he contributed to society with what he had—his brain. One of his poems still hang around in a frame at my mom’s house, above the makeshift mantel that includes photos of both of my grandparents, all long gone by now. His memory still lives in me no matter what.

This holiday season I’m not feelin’ it

Growing up, the holiday season was all about Christmas and religion. Out of all my fondest memories, none involved opening Christmas presents or playing with the latest gadgets and toys — after all, this was the 1980s in a third world country. I didn’t have the luxury, and I didn’t know better. Thus, my experiences with holiday traditions involved going to church, and praying a lot (for what reason, I didn’t know — I just knew that it was part of the process of being in church), and family gatherings with foods aplenty. There were laughter as well as tears and grim faces as we all paused to reflect upon Christ’s birth during midnight church service.

It wasn’t until I found myself in a new country, and many years later, as an adult that I started becoming aware of how materialistic our society has become in regards to Christmas. The holiday season became less about being together with loved ones than about the pressure to buy gifts, host parties, and traveling. Everywhere you go, there are “SALE SALE SALE” signs enticing you to buy, buy, buy. Shop until you drop, that’s what they say. It became an unspoken but rather obvious rule to “feel jolly” around the holidays by purchasing things for people, often times without knowing what they really wanted, if anything at all.

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As soon as Halloween hits, that’s when the volcanic eruption of holiday shopping madness begins. Stores begin displaying holiday decor, and everything is bright and merry. It’s funny how all it takes is a few simple string lights to entice me to look at things in a store, and the longer I look at it, the more tempted I am to buy it. And it’s no wonder that I’ve gone through my twenties feeling this way. The pressure to shop for people is daunting. The temptation to shop for oneself is also daunting. It wasn’t until the past few years that I become aware of my feelings towards the holiday season. Right after New Year’s hits, many stores bombards you with all things exercise-related, hence begins the process of pretending that one is going to pursue their New Year’s resolutions. After all, we need to recuperate from the sugar high coma that we’ve been living in for the past two months.

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We all know that New Year’s resolutions are fruitless and that not very many people are actually successful. But still — it’s there. There have been some years when I’ve received offers from credit card companies for a balance transfer or loan consolidation around the beginning of the New Year. I’m not quite sure if this was based on a schedule, or because these companies know that once people look at their bill from the previous month, they might cringe and wonder to themselves, “Yikes. How on earth did I spend that much last month?!?!”

The holidays can be and are quite expensive. It’s even worse when you become parents. That’s what happened to me several years ago. This article from the Washington Post talked about the feeling that I’ve experienced before, as I’m sure many of you have s well — the desire to “get it right.”

“We want our kids to be happy, and sometimes we feel like we must be ultra-organized, forward thinking and creative to make that happen.”

It’s a real struggle and often leads to feelings of stress and exhaustion. This holiday season, I struggled with the desire to provide a certain level of happiness for my kids through Christmas gifts with the lack of desire (and more so the inability) to buy presents. Before we had kids, and even now, it feels like there’s a pressure to act a certain way — to buy presents for the people in your family/social circles whom you only vaguely know, to feel grateful that you are getting something, to feeling like you should be jolly just because the mall is decorated and Santa is visiting, and because you see lights all around.

Last year, we were very fortunate to have a lot of presents donated to us from generous individuals (through an anonymous Winter Wonder program at my husband’s school), and thus, our Christmas involved a massive collection of wrapping paper and goods on the morning of Christmas day.

This year, it’s a little different. Not only have we been disappointed by certain people throughout the year, but also because our financial situation has changed quite a bit. No longer am I looking forward to social gatherings that much because I wasn’t that kind of person to begin with. (I’d be very awkward at a cocktail party). Granted, our income situation hasn’t changed dramatically, but it has changed quite a bit. No longer am I able to buy presents that costs more than $20 each. Every time the temptation to shop enters my head, I’d try to shake it out, knowing that we might as well be in much bigger debt if we succumb to buying unnecessary gifts that people may not like.

What once was an occasion to celebrate Jesus Christ’s birth as a tender moment in time became a progression of fruitless spending, a wasteful money venture building up to familial drama. I’m sick of it. Call me a Grinch, but I’m tired of being tempted by lighted displays, baked goods, and sales. I’m tired of pretending to like something when I don’t, and I don’t want people to do the same thing to me either. I feel that the best thing you can do is to spend time with people who actually matter to you — or if none, then pets who are your friends. Because in the end, those who matter won’t judge you based on the presents that you give (or don’t give) and will still like you no matter what.

This year, I am grateful for my little family — what little family I do have, with my husband and children — are something that I truly treasure. But for me, Christmas is not about buying presents for people you don’t know, or going to social events like white elephant gift exchanges, or company parties, or hosting a party of your own. All of these activities create a certain level of anxiety that none of us needs.

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Our Christmas tree
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Ho ho ho it’s a holiday wreath!