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.