Friday, April 16, 2010

Kids and Death

I am totally screwing up the conversation with Mary Grace about death. 

It started when her classmate's mom died.  The conversation has paused, since then, but it hasn't really stopped.  It probably never will - I know my parents and I still talk about death (it's probably still hard for my parents).  Mary Grace is aware of death, now.  For example, when characters in her shows say the words "die" and "dying" (and it's kind of astonishing how often they do in children's shows!) they just bounced off of her blissfully oblivious little head before, but she hears them now.  She hears those words on the news.  She notices when we talk about people in our lives who have died (my aunt's father-in-law died, and we will attend his wake this weekend in Grammaland, and I was making arrangements for someone to watch the kids, because they didn't know him well enough to go, and she heard me on the phone).  She asks me questions.

I know this is normal stuff for a child her age, but it's still so hard.

I don't want to lie to her, but I don't want to scare her. 

So far, I've told her the following, in small bits and pieces:

About the process:  You know how your toys have batteries?  Well, people kind of have batteries too.  And when you get really old, or sometimes if you get really hurt or really sick, those batteries can stop working.  And just like your toys don't do anything, anymore, after their batteries run out, people don't move or talk or eat or do anything anymore after they've died.

To give perspective:  It's not the sort of sick that you and Claire get when you have a pukey flu or when you have a cold - in order to die you have to be really, really sick or really, really hurt.  That's why Mommy and Daddy tell you to stay out of the street, by the way, a car hitting someone can hurt them really, really badly.

To teach empathy:  Generally people are very old when they die, but sometimes people die before they get very old, like Marly's mom.  That's why it's important to love each other and take care of each other every day.  Because sometimes people die when no one expects them to, and that's really hard.

To comfort:  Mommy and Daddy probably won't die until we're very very old.  My mom and dad are still alive, and so are Daddy's mom and dad, right?  Mommy and Daddy are grown ups.  And chances are that you will be much older and more grown up than Mommy is before you have to worry about Mommy or Daddy dying.  (And now I have to watch myself, saying things like "I'm so old!" when I realize that it's has been 17 years since I was 17 years old.  Hearing me say that could completely freak her out, now.)

To reassure:  You probably won't die until you're very old, either.

To make her feel like she has some power and control:  Part of the reason that Mommy and Daddy have been working very hard at being healthier (weight loss is another frequent topic in this house - they've watched their parents lose over 100 pounds in half a year, and they've noticed) is so that we can keep our bodies healthy to live even longer.  And we take good care of you and Claire, too - we take you to the doctor and we feed you fruits and vegetables so that you can be healthy and strong and live a very long time.  What are some things that you think you could to do keep yourself healthy, and to keep yourself safe?  (Eat vegetables, stay out of the street, etc.)

And, because she goes to a Christian preschool:  A lot of people think you get to go to Heaven and be with God when you die.  That is a nice thing to think, isn't it?  Thankfully, she hasn't asked me (yet) if I believe that.  I did say, Do you remember what it was like before you were born?  Me neither.  But I think that's probably what it's like for people after they die.  My own religious beliefs could fill an entire blog, so I don't want to go into it other than to say that I can't really tell her for sure "you go to heaven" without feeling like a big hypocrite.  I don't honestly know that the whole heaven thing is true, and neither does anyone else.  The best I can do without feeling like a fraud is "no one knows what happens when we die, but here are some things that some people have guessed." 

Times like these, it would be a lot easier to be a religious person.

And, because I do believe this:  Death doesn't stop love.  Just because someone dies, that doesn't mean that we stop loving them, or that they stop loving us.  (I do believe in The Princess Bride!  I'm not sure if that's awesome or sad.)

Now remember, I'm giving this to her in small bites, over the course of several months, but I still feel like I'm about 6 grade levels ahead of her with all this.

I need help.  Anyone out there have any suggestions?

(I borrowed the image from someone else's blog, but they probably don't own the IP, either, so I guess it's ok.  I'm very unsure of how all that works.  I did check Wikimedia Commons, and I tried to use's copy of the above photo, but it didn't work.)


RobMonroe said...

See if the church that hosts preschool has a library. They are bound to have books that are age appropriate. If not there, then the library.


strwberrryjoy said...

I think you're doing a great job. I've already tried telling Claire about death with stuff like dead worms we see outside or a dead turtle. I think sheltering them and then "springing" it on them is a harder way to go. I also watched LAND BEFORE TIME with her and Littlefoot's mom died. I'm not sure she gets it, but she gets something about it.

Anonymous said...

It seemed like I attended a lot of open casket funerals when I was a small child; I didn't know the deceased, but my parents did. And we always had pet fish and hamsters who were dying. I don't remember any philosophical discussions. I just always knew that a lifeless body meant death. Death was a part of my everyday life, and I never thought it was any big deal.

Susan said...

Maria Shriver had a book called What's Heaven about questions her daughters asked regarding death. It might be worth checking out.

mwiesjahn said...

I think it's also important to make sure that they know that they don't have to be sad. I always felt like I had to be really sad when someone or something died. Like my fish, really I didn't care but I felt that something was wrong with me if I didn't cry and "mourn" for an extended amount of time.
Don't get me wrong, most of the time it is sad, but I think it's important that they know that they don't have to cry or be sad. Ya know?

Cate said...

I don't know what part you think you are screwing up! You have thought out so many different metaphors/aspects -- you are giving her so much great information that I think you should be happy with both your creativity and her ability to handle all of it.

Yup'ik people are much more in-your-face and matter of fact about death than folks in western culture. We also happen to have a lot of it for such a small place, disproportionately so, so Esther has had a lot of exposure and is doing fine, and we talk about it when she wants to. She has seen lots of bodies, as we've been to many wakes and funerals. Wakes are held in peoples' living rooms for three days before the funeral with family sitting with, touching, and even kissing the body. Every evening as many people as can fit in the little houses will gather with the immediate family and sing hymns for hours, completely surrounding the family with support. People take turns supporting each other as they break down with emotion, and food is brought by and offered to everyone who walks in the door, eaten in the same room as the body is located.

No kids seems traumatized at being very exposed to death so young. In fact, it seems like really healthy grieving, and I think it's really healthy understanding. In western culture we have removed it from our immediate space so much that it is hard to conceptualize; it becomes so much more abstract, and it seems like that is the reason why it is hard for some kids to wrap their minds around it.

It doesn't sound like MaryGrace is one of those kids, though; it sounds like she is understanding it great, to me. I guess my point is that I don't think that too much understanding of death too young is inherently traumatizing.

Kathryn said...

All good advise. My suggestion would be to let them attend the wake for Gary's dad. I think it helps kids understand the process before it happens to someone close to them. They can ask questions and it won't be as difficult for you to answer them. Just a thought.

Carmen said...

OMG. Not only is The Princess Bride one of my totally favorite movies, I am also agnostic with two kids wondering how I will deal with this very issue one day. I think you're doing an awesome job trying to explain a complex issue.