Children are smart, intuitive, and great multi-taskers. My granddaughter, Emery, is now ten. She has this incredible ability to be completely engaged in homework, playing with her younger brother, or watching TV and with the wisdom that only a child can have will interject her thoughts into a conversation of adults taking place in another room. She returns to her task without skipping a beat.
The adults look up and say, “Now, why didn’t I think of that. Or, this is an adult conversation, we need to walk outside, sit in the car, lock the door, and then turn the music on to continue. Well, not quite, but she does have ears like a moth which is reported to have the best hearing in the world. She is not unique in this ability as her brothers, Baylon, twelve, and Fisher, six, display this at various times if they find the conversation interesting.
Children don’t always have to hear what adults are saying to have an intuitive sense of emotions that drift through a home like the smell of a cake baking or burnt popcorn depending on the mood of parents and other adults.
During this past eight-teen months, parents have had an unprecedented burden to carry as weighty topics bear down on the innocent ears of children, and adults alike. None of these topics have been more difficult than the association of death and Covid-19. Families processing death of a family member, beloved teacher, or baseball coach must create a sense of safety for the child. This prepares them when a schoolmate becomes ill or even when a parent or grandparent falls ill with Covid-19 or any other serious medical issue.
However, as we look to experts on this topic, it is far better to prepare children by discussing death when it is not knocking at the door. Rather use events that happen in all children’s lives to teach them the natural cycle that occurs with life and death. These reveal opportunities to discuss even deeper topics such as faith, the origin of life, and the miracle of their own physical body.
An article in Parents Magazine emphasized the importance of talking with our children about death, even when they are young. The author states that for children, “The concept of life suddenly ending is confusing, and they usually don’t have the vocabulary to fully express how they’re feeling.” For children, getting a better understanding of death can come through the many “little deaths” that they witness around them: a houseplant, a beloved pet, or characters in books and movies.
I remember like it was yesterday being traumatized as a child when I watched – spoiler alert – the death of Bambi’s mother in the Disney animated film Bambi. Likewise, my four-year-old grandson Fisher was terrified in The Lion King when – spoiler alert – death claimed Mufasa. The reality is that most kids’ movies feature dying or death as a prominent theme. We do not need to try to change the movie industry. Art is simply imitating life, right? We do, however, need to talk openly with our children about those sad and scary scenes, listening more than we talk. Much like a sick patient, our kids will tell us exactly what they fear if we give them the opportunity. Each time a child is forced to reckon with the death of a grandparent, other family member, or a member of the community, they have another opportunity to discuss death openly and directly.
One morning two years ago my sweet little Fisher awoke to the news that the family dog, Lily, had died during the night. He ran to his toy box, pulled out his stethoscope and went to “fix” Lily.
“Where should I put the Band-Aid?” he asked his mother as she looked on with tears. As Fisher grasped the truth that Lily would not be waking up, his face crumpled, and his four-year-old emotions began to match those of the other grievers.
My son-in-law, Billy, built a wooden coffin for Lilli. After each child placed hand-drawn pictures and personal goodbye messages in the box with the beloved pup, they helped drill the coffin lid shut as their dad held their hands. Lilli then joined two other former family pets in our little backyard cemetery.
What I noticed at Lilli’s burial service was that each child processed her death and gave a final goodbye consistent with his or her personality. The oldest chose not to process externally, and instead ran around distracted by more pleasant thoughts. Emery solemnly watched the proceedings, then wanted to conclude by hammering a cross in the ground. Fisher wore his stethoscope around his neck and played nearby. A few days later he expressed how much he missed Lilli.
When they are older, my grandchildren may not remember all the details of that day. I do believe, however, that they will look back with fondness on a pet beloved in life and in death. And that is a start.
You may resist the idea of a discussion with your younger child(ren) because of the deep fear that death evokes in you. My encouragement would be to work through this, not only for your child, but also for your own sake. What you cannot imagine – what no parent can – is having a child die before you do. Tragically, however, we know this sometimes happens. As a parent myself, I understand that “heavy chest,” anxious feeling that comes with the mere thought of having to one day bury a child. But I also know that preparing ourselves and our children for the eventuality of death is a precious gift, even though right now it may seem more like a burden or a curse.
I have a little plaque by my kitchen sink that says, “I am Mom. What’s your superpower?” Superpowers are what superheroes use to achieve good. Helping our kids deal with death is one of those superpowers that we need to employ as parents.
Superpower. Is. Good.
Milbrand, L, “Matters of Life and Death,” Parents Magazine Special Edition, The Mindful Life, 2019.