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Talking to a child about death is one of the hardest conversations, not only because it is hard to explain it to them but also because it is hard for them to understand. My dilemma about this conversation comes both as a parent and as a therapist. It worries me when I see I see how attached my son is to his grandparents and when I think that one day they will die and he will have to comprehend that. Death is an inevitable part of life and even though no one wants to talk about it, I believe it’s our responsibility to help our kids understand the concept.
A year ago, one of my closest friends lost her father. My son knew I had been going to a hospital to meet Raj Uncle and he had visited too and understood that Uncle was very sick. When things took a turn for the worse, I remember I tentatively brought up dying and losing Uncle. I was anxious about finding the right analogy to explain death to a 3 year old, but he helped me out with one. His analogy was, it’s like a when a toy breaks and we just can’t fix it, we have to say bye to that toy forever and can’t ever play with it again. I was surprised but so relieved that he could make sense of it. We ran with that analogy and he was able to understand why I needed to go and be with my friend and why she was so upset.
I think what stayed with me, a year later, is the fact that children are already drawing concepts from so many interactions, and we adults just miss this point. We attach meaning to concepts and run away from what we fear, on the other hand kids are in search of explanations all the time. Looking back, of course my son and I had encountered death- almost all stories especially the Panchatantra’s and the Grimm’s fairytales have death in them, when we go for our nature walks we have found dead insects and buried them, when ants come into the house someone or the other has stamped them out, he has helped me pick ticks and flush them down the toilet and he relates to battery dying on the phone and iPad. He already had some ideas about death!
It is important to let kids know that we can talk about death and grief. It is our anxiety about the topic that holds us back. However, we can make the conversations easier for ourselves if we bring up the topic in a neutral timeframe and when we are composed and not in the midst of a crisis or grieving ourselves.
Children at different ages understand death differently and while I honestly believe that they are never too young to know, families need to make their own decisions. I would urge parents to consider the scenario and work with some kind of plan vis-à-vis their children. The way I see it, our children are highly emotionally tuned into us, they can tell when we are having a hard time by the smallest change in our behavior. No matter how you might try to keep up a façade before them, they pick up on the anxiety and you will see it reflect in a change in them and their behavior. The lack of an explanation will only make them more anxious and worried about you and themselves.
Very young children may not understand the permanence of death but they will benefit from knowing that there is a reason behind why people are upset and sad. You can help them see that your reaction and that of others around you is natural when you lose someone. They can connect the dots and know that they can ask you what is going. The main idea should be to make it acceptable for them to come and ask you questions and not for them to build a story in their minds that they have to bottle up.
Even if their questions make us uncomfortable, we need to give them the message that it is okay for them to approach us and talk to us! If you have in any spiritual beliefs about death and afterlife, talk to kids from the early years, so that they have that to hold onto and share with you. In our home we don’t have any religious or spiritual beliefs though I have explained to my son that people believe in heaven. In India, people often avoid using the word dead and speak about death in vague terms. With children, we need to avoid terms like “uncle has gone away” or “we have lost uncle”. These terms can be very confusing for young children who think in literal terms.
As children grow older, they begin to understand the irreversibility of death, they can relate to the sequence of happenings and can choose to follow the response you role model. I think by early adolescence it gets harder because children can then extend the concept to losing others including their parents. This makes it even more important to leave channels of communication open with them.
NO matter how children react and respond to death, we need to be accepting of it, their questions have to be responded to in a non-judgmental manner and we need to observe their responses. It’s a hard thing to do, when we ourselves are grieving. I think the most important thing, is to reassure children that you care about them. In grief that’s what we need, to be cared for in some way. We can even help them care for others who are grieving.
There is no template or format that can be followed for this conversation and each child is different as each parent is. However, I think it is very important to initiate the conversation about death and dying well before we are actually caught up in a moment of grief. Nothing can prepare us for loss, but we as parents owe our children and ourselves the chance to be prepared. As a parent we need to build our child’s emotional resources and one of the most essential pillars of that is trust. They need to trust that they can rely on us to prepare them for life and that they can come to us whenever they want to.
I think loss sometimes brings with it the great opportunity to remind ourselves of community. Especially in India, where not only family but friends, colleagues and all kind of support systems extend themselves in support. It is important to help children recognize this circle of support. At the same time, creating space for personal and private time with your child is very important and discussing with them and preparing them for your availability. It is best to retain a sense of routine in the lives of children and to make yourself available in a predictable manner. From one parent to another, we need to ask for help for ourselves and reach out because we need to survive too. By talking to your children beforehand, the loss and the pain will not be less but perhaps the anxieties about the “death conversation” may be.