"Mum, are you going to die?" My four-year-old son asked me after walking through an old English cemetery with rickety gravestones. Monuments in the dry language of dates told the story of the inhabitants of past centuries: the elderly, young and children, people of different nationalities and religions found eternal peace in this beautiful and quiet place.
"I will die, son" I answered, "but I hope not soon. In fact, it won’t happen for many, many years and decades."
"Will I die? ", he looked into my eyes, clearly with the hope of a negative answer.
“Everyone dies someday, dear, but usually people die at old age, and you're still only a little boy. You have a whole life ahead of you. A long and happy life.”
You Cannot Shield Children from Worries About Death, So Let's Help Them to Understand
The topic of death is discussed from time to time in most families. Children do not live on a different planet and often hear about death.
Death occurs in many fairy tales: Cinderella's mother died, the wolf's stomach was ripped open, the Snow Maiden melted over the fire. Death looks at us from TV screens and computer monitors in the sad news that the world is full of, and, of course, surrounds us in reality. This year was another sad confirmation of ever-presence of death. There are hardly any middle-aged people who have not faced death and have not survived the departure of close relatives or friends.
But today I would like to talk about death as an inevitable end of physical life, and about the child's acceptance of this fact. Sooner or later, every parent hears questions about this, and we do not always have ready-made answers.
Firstly, we must take into account that at different stages children perceive death in different ways. Until the age of five, for example, death is something impersonal and inconclusive. From the age of five to pre-adolescence, there is a gradual awareness of the finiteness of the life path. This is the period when death becomes real, most often clearly imagined and visualised. And only by the beginning of puberty, a person comes to the realisation that all living things, including himself and his loved ones are mortal. Philosophical interest and a search for the meaning of life often start being questioned at this age.
So, it doesn’t matter how old the child is, the question of death is worth a separate conversation in an age-appropriate manner.
Here are just some reflections on the topic.
What NOT To Do And Say When a Child Asks About Death
1. Do not avoid talking about death or quickly change the subject without answering the question. This can only increase the child's interest. By making something secretive, we make it interesting and mysterious and encourage children to go and search for answers elsewhere.
2. Don't promise that you will never die. This is not true, and if we demand that the child does not lie to us, then it's not ethical to lie ourselves.
3. Do not promise that the child will never die.
4. It's not worth telling children that death is like a dream, that people close their eyes and seem to fall asleep. Children take everything literally and after such stories it can be very scary for them to go to bed.
5. Don't tell kids that people go to heaven. I fell into this trap myself, once I told my eldest son that my grandmother had gone there. And then for a long time I tried to explain the difference between soul and body. As a result, I received a million additional questions: “Where is your grandmother in heaven? What cloud is it on? How can you sit on a cloud if it's just steam? Will we see her from the plane? And how do they all stay there and do not fall down? "
6. Do not overwhelm your child with details related to death. The younger the child, the simpler and shorter the explanations should be.
7. If we say that “only the sick and the old die”, the child may be frightened and expect death in a panic every time he has a cold. It's better to talk about serious diseases in an accessible language. The same about old age. It's more honest to say that sometimes not only old people die for various reasons, but emphasize that this happens very rarely.
8. Don't impose your religious vision of death. Here I have a feeling that many will disagree with me, but nevertheless. It's much more honest to say: “Our family is Orthodox (another separate conversation about religion is implied), and in Orthodoxy, death means this. People of other religions think differently. For example, Buddhists believe so and so , and Muslims believe this and that. " The child will grow up and figure out what makes sense to him and make a decision. Better to emphasize that all opinions must be respected.
9. Don't worry if your child does not react the way you imagined. We are all different and our children are unique too. Plus, again, the specifics of age. If he ran away after five seconds as if nothing had happened, that's fine. If, on the contrary, he's fixated and constantly returns to this topic, it means that he did not receive an answer to his question in full and we must try to find out what exactly worries him the most. Fairy tales or drawings can help here.
How to Properly Speak About Death
1. Speak the truth. According to age, but truth. The older the child, the more detailed and complex the answer can be. At the age of five, it is enough to say: “After death, the human body stops working, it does not need to eat, drink or sleep. It doesn't feel anything anymore. " With older children, you can discuss the religious aspects of death, talk about the soul and philosophy, about the finiteness of earthly existence, discuss the stages of mourning and living the loss that people face.
2. Accept the child's feelings and fears about death, discuss all emotions, explain that grief and sadness are as much a part of our world as happiness and joy. Don't try to create an artificial cocoon around the child, where everything is always good.
3. Answer the questions (sometimes the same questions over and over) about death and all that is related to it. Funeral, cremation, commemoration, minutes of silence, cemeteries, church funerals - all these things are scary but interesting. A child may not understand the depth of the emotional component, but if from the very beginning he openly (and again in accordance with age) talks about the rituals and traditions of farewell, then it will be much easier for a small person to accept the very concept of death.
4. Accept the literal understanding and curiosity of the younger age: "And when you die, can I take your computer?", "Mom, he's annoying me, I want him to die,". It happens that children say such phrases, and this only means that in their minds death has not yet become the final finale.
5. Start a conversation about death with minimal emotional connotation. Death can be discussed using examples in nature: withered flowers, withered insects, late autumn with fallen leaves and the first frost.
6. Share your feelings and emotions with children. Children hear the echoes of the news, and if the parents are worried and afraid, then these emotions will necessarily be broadcast to the child. If you are scared of a terrorist attack and it so happens that you discuss the terrible tragedy and grief of the families of the victims in front of your children, then you should definitely include the children in the conversation. Communicate to them in understandable language what happened, reassuring them that they are safe.
7. Discuss precautions in the event of a threat of terrorist attacks and natural disasters. Explain what needs to be done, such as when a bomb has been reported or an impending hurricane is reported.
8. If the child seems overly concerned about death or even slightly obsessed with it, try and help him out of this cycle of thoughts. Offer to draw his fears and concerns, or make a collage or simply talk it over. With older children keeping a diary might work.
9. And it's also absolutely fine to answer: "I don't know," to the questions you don’t know the answers to. The main thing is to convey to the little person that death is an integral part of life and to let him know that his parents are with him and ready to support him, ready to listen and answer questions and help deal with emotions and fears.