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.

 

What works for one might not work for another

Lately, I’ve decided on one thing–that there is too much literature on how to be a parent. You’d think that with the age group most primed to be having kids right now (millennials) are having less kids and having them later in life that there would be less articles, blog posts and books on parenting, but I see them all the time! Perhaps it’s because I’m a parent that I tend to gravitate towards the stuff related to parenting (with all the newsletters I subscribe to relating to family, wellness and parenting, I might be as you say “slightly obsessed”) but I also feel like it travels with me wherever I go.

If you’re a parent you know what I mean. You have friends, colleagues and neighbors telling you this and that about kids, and then you have the media telling you this is what kids / having a family should look like. Then you have other media such as social media proclaiming the wonderful, high feelings of being a parent and not displaying the lows, which in turn tells others viewing your social media that you have a perfect life. It’s hard not to be one or the other — you’re either the one jealous of others lives with children or you’re the one boasting about your family/kids/life. Either way, you can’t win.

Anyway, what I’m getting is at is that I’ve been seeing a lot of “how to” articles. How to raise healthy kids. How to teach kids about not bullying. How to get your kids to do this and that. It’s kind of overwhelming!

For example–you might have heard the good ol’ wisdom of letting them “cry it out.” When your baby or toddler is freaking out, do you go and comfort them or do you let them tough it out? If you do the latter it’ll make you feel like the worst parent in the world, because you’re letting them suffer. But if you do the former, then you’re coddling then. Either way, you can’t win.

I can’t tell you which side I’m on or which side actually works when you’re trying to teach your baby/toddler something (like a new skill–crying their hearts out or self soothing), but I can tell you that I’ve tried both. Both options will yield similar if not successful results, but it all depends on the kid.

Take, for example–When Lily was about 2 1/2 years old, my husband I decided that she was a little bit too old to have a pacifier, so we embarked on a mission to wean her off the contraption. We decided to do it the hard way–cut it out cold turkey. So one day she had ’em, and the next day she didn’t. As one would expect, she cried and cried and cried. It was incredibly agonizing. I’m pretty sure that she must’ve cried for over an hour once, just because she didn’t have her binky. We sat there on the couch on the other side of her bedroom wall and looked at each other with a level of incredulity because 1) how can a kid cry that long? And 2) how can a kid still need that when she’s almost three?

Well, we decided to tough it out for a few more days. Fast forward several months later, she’s three years old and her brother is born. She is no longer using the pacifier. It was incredible, and I can’t believe it worked.

Did I feel like a horrible parent? Yes, but as I’ve written about it here, sometimes they need a major push in order to accomplish something. Sometimes you just can’t string them along.

Time goes by, and now James is about six months old. I can’t remember exactly but I know he was less than a year old when he was having a terrible time sleeping at night. For whatever reason, he didn’t sleep longer than two hours. All the parenting literature says that at his age, he should’ve been sleeping for at least four hours if not more. Well, he wasn’t.

And once again, it felt like deja vu. It doesn’t feel like it was that long ago that we were trying to train our daughter to sleep with no binky…

And once again, we were back on the couch “ignoring” his cries. And feeling like horrible parents. And talking about what we should do every minute that we were awake–which was all night, due to the fact that he was crying, not sleeping, and therefore, keeping us up.

Nowadays, he sleeps like a champ.

So you see where I’m going with this right? My position on how to train your kid to sleep, eat, or whatever is necessary has a better success rate if you just let them “tough it out.” Remove the debris that’s causing them delays. Get rid of it cold turkey. Right?

Welll…like I said, it depends on the kid. With James, we did what I call “tough reality” training with regards to sleeping. But there’s one thing that we’ve been a little slow to remove so quickly, and that’s the bottle.

James takes a bottle to go to sleep. One for nap time, two for night time. It’s how it’s always been for the past two years. We’ve never really discussed how we should wean him off the bottle, even though we discussed getting him a big boy bed and potty training and all that stuff. When it comes to the bottle, we simply shrugged and said, “Whenever.”

Little did I know that we would never actually have to do it cold turkey, that he would wean himself off the bottle.

Last night I said to my husband, “I don’t want to count my chickens before they hatch but…James has not been taking his bottle at all. He takes a sip and then says, “Put the bottle down,” or “Take the bottle away.” I was flabbergasted. I did not expect him to say such things, I told my husband.

Tonight he did the same thing. Which only brings to mind the realization that he is outgrowing his bottle needs.

Of course, this sounds easier than it actually is. In reality, we have employed a slower approach to weaning. For several months we have been giving him less and less each night. It wasn’t until this week that he stopped demanding for another bottle. Prior to this, he would scream, “More bottle now!” after finishing the first (diluted and small) bottle. And I’d stick to my guns. I stayed firm and tried to distract him with something else. Over time, I think it stuck.

Well, I have to give it another week or so to see if this behavior changes but I can’t tell you how immensely happy I am that we will no longer have to buy milk, heat it up to the correct temperature and give it to him to help him sleep. I love that, but I’m also scared of the possibility that he will soon stop napping. Big changes. BIG STUFF indeed.

Here’s a piece of literature you can rely on–try different things with different kids. You never know which one will work but you won’t know until you try. Whatever you do, stick to your guns. Do not waiver. It will get worse before it can get better.

What I learned from four years in banking

Last week, I ran into someone I knew from an old job on the train. It was 7 o’clock in the morning. He was heading to work and so was I. This wouldn’t have been any more common occurrence than riding the train itself, but every once in awhile I run into Paul. He and I exchanged a few brief sentences. He still teaches fitness classes for our local transportation system Tri-Met, he told me, and I told him about my new job. We then parted our ways when he told me he needed to get himself a cup of coffee.

It feels like ages ago but from late 2010 to late 2014, I worked in the banking industry. It’s an industry that I sort “fell into,” so to speak, because I didn’t specifically seek it out. Post college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. Coupled that with experiencing the recession, it didn’t make for a particularly easy decision.

I got a job at a local bank because I had customer service and sales experience. It was there that I learned the proper way to count and display money (something I never really took into consideration before) and how to be vigilant for possible security risks (for example, examining checks for signs of fraud or observing people’s behavior when they’re interacting with you at the teller window). I continued on to a local credit union after 8 months because the sales environment was a bit much for me. It was almost a cut-throat sales floor where there was always a weekly competition and a reminder from management that we might be fired if we didn’t meet our sales goals.

Luckily, when I got to the credit union, it wasn’t like that, but I still had sales goals to achieve. It was a much more flexible, open environment where I could call anybody within the company and they’d respond right away and give me helpful information, which makes the customer’s experience that much better. To this day, I still bank at that credit union and would not recommend anything else.

Still, during my years there I had some turbulent moments, but also learned quite a bit about people’s behaviors. I had no idea that all the stuff I learned in college, and what I read online via personal finance articles/blogs/sites that it was nothing compared to having access to people’s personal financial accounts.

I learned how much people made (and the majority of the members I helped made significantly more than I did) via their direct deposit and physical paychecks. I learned what people did on the weekends by simply glancing at their transaction history–where they went to dinner, what type of things they typically spend their money on, and how much they spent at the grocery store (always an astounding amount in comparison to myself, who before I had kids, tried to stay at around $200-$300 per month).

Many of us don’t realize that tellers, perhaps next to our priests, know so much personal stuff about us. Of course, we are not all defined by our bank accounts, but many things can be deduced from it. Take, for example, someone who goes to Starbucks a lot. It means they have a coffee addiction, right? Or someone who brings in a lot of checks and separates them out, and then makes you do multiple transactions that ends up taking at least 15 minutes means that they’re particular, right? (I did have one member who did that all the time).

Another thing I learned from my banking days is that you can never judge a book by its cover. I learned that although a lot of people make more money than me (post-tax), they still spend an exorbitant amount, so the day before their payroll hits, they only have $10 in their account, or they’re already overdrawn. Those are the non-saver types. Then there’s people who hardly spend anything. Instead, they only have savings accounts, and withdraws a certain amount of cash to spend weekly. There’s also the people who have a lot of money in their savings but also a lot of debt, given by their current credit balances are about as equal as their savings.

Finally, there’s people who are truly on the poverty level–they barely have any money, and when they do it usually comes from a state or governmental agency, like the IRS. I learned that those are the people who are most down-to-earth. They are also the ones who have horrible credit ratings, typically a D or C rating (550-690).

Of course, it’s easy to judge people by their credit rating, because credit rating equal credit worthiness, which in turns translates into human worthiness. How we’re able to pay back our debts has to do with our moral obligation to ourselves and our ethical beliefs, right? And how others view us contributes to that worthiness as well.

That can’t be more wrong. But unfortunately, in the financial world, numbers mean everything. I’ve heard people tell me about things that happened to them which brought down their credit rating by 200 points. Usually, all it takes is one major catastrophic event to make it happen, like a divorce, a legal battle, or a medical condition. These things happen, and even though we can’t really blame people for it (after all, it’s not like they choose to be sick), the reality is–we do. Banks and credit unions make a point from the previous recession in that they look at the person as a whole–financially, of course–and income and credit score is a major deciding factor in whether or not someone is granted a loan. Never mind the fact that they are now law-abiding citizens; if they so much as made a mistake in the past, such as declaring for bankruptcy because of a divorce, they will pay that price, literally in high interest, or a rejection for many years to come.

That brings me to the idea of privilege. For those who are privileged enough to have a good income that allows them to be approved for loans, it puts a bend in the road for those who wish to become good enough to have a loan, to get themselves back up again. I learned so much about privilege in my years there. But perhaps the most important lesson I learned is about personal finance. From seeing what others were doing, I learned how to manage my own money. I learned how important it was to have a retirement account. And I learned that credit can benefit you and hurt you at the same time.

The reality is, bank tellers don’t make a lot of money. They make a few dollars above minimum wage, but besides the benefits, salaries for that particular job is very stagnant, with a possible increase of 25-50 cents per year. What most people don’t know is that tellers do a lot more than just counting money and receiving them. They are the agents for money exchanges and customer issues, in addition to selling additional products, balancing their till daily, and for some, like me, manage the entire branch’s vault, which requires additional duties.

Not surprisingly, the ones that I related to the most belonged in the last category that I described above–ones who hardly had any money, the ones who seems to be perpetually struggling. Like Paul, who only has a few hundred dollars on average in his account, I felt that I was struggling too. But somehow he manages okay. He’s happy making other people healthy and fit. You’d never think that if you look at him and his bank account.

The same goes for another customer, whose name I’ve long forgotten, but who I remember clearly because he was a mild-mannered man who dressed like he was poor. In reality, he was rich. He had about $50,000 in his account that he never touches, and after a conversation once when I tried to get him to talk to our financial advisor, and he turned it down, telling me that he made some bad choices with his money in the ’90s, so he only wanted to keep his money liquid, I wondered if he was an Enron victim.

The next time you’re at the bank, ask yourself–how much does this teller know about me? Chances are, it’s a lot.