8 Painful, Frustrating Stages Of Trying To Explain Death To Your Children
My first semester of college, I took Introduction to Anthropology. I didn't love it and, as such, I've mostly forgotten everything about the course. But one thing from the first day of class has stuck with me: In highlighting some of the challenges faced by anthropologists, the professor pointed out that it was often extremely difficult to create accurate family records because many tribes have strict taboos against speaking about the dead. I was intrigued by this idea, because it struck me as absolutely heartbreaking. How do you process a loss when you aren't allowed to so much as say the name of a loved one once they're gone?
As the years went by, I realized that this taboo was not unique to the clutch of shrinking Amazonian tribes we had discussed in my Anthro class. Refusal to speak about the dead, while not universal, is common across countries and cultures, including modern American culture. Don't believe me? Who among us hasn't guarded our speech around a grieving widow, parent, or family member, diligently avoiding not only the dead person's name but any subject that might call to mind any hint of their memory? In American society, speaking about the dead isn't an overtly stated taboo, but it's still taboo. And this reticence regarding the deceased extends to a desire to avoid any and all discussion about death and dying.
I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume that death was never a particularly sunny subject. But back in the day, death was part of everyday life. And I don't just mean that people were more used to it because of shorter lifespans, horrible contagious diseases, and high infant and maternal mortality rates, though I'm sure that came into play. But up until relatively recently, death and death rituals took place in the home almost exclusively. Now, most people die in hospitals or nursing homes and most funerary rites take place in a funeral parlor. As a result, an already confusing, sad, and scary part of life has become even more confusing because we have even less insight and understanding of it than did our ancestors.
And if you're reading this article, you probably have another confounding factor that makes the subject of death and dying even more difficult and emotional: You're a parent, and it's up to you to guide your tiny human(s) through all this as well. Children can make life amazing and joyful in ways you never knew possible before they were born, especially if they sleep past 7 a.m. But in times of sorrow, children can be the moldy cherry atop your already craptastic sundae. Here's how...
You Have No Idea What To Tell Them
When your child asks you things like, "Why did they die?" "Where did they go?" "Did it hurt when they died?" "When will you die?" "When will I die?" there can be several levels of not knowing how to respond. First, you might legitimately not have the answer to any of these questions ("I have no idea what happens to people when they die."); Or you have a general answer ("You won't die for a long, long time.") but they want something more specific and you can't give it to them; Or you know the answer — "Yes, this person died in a lot of pain." — but you don't want to scare them. Explaining death to a child is both an exercise in humility, because you are ultimately clueless, and a tightrope act of tact and comfort. Lucky you!
Their Questions Force You To Confront Your Own Feelings And Beliefs
So all these questions that you may or may not have the answer to? Your kid simply asking them is going to make you think about your answers or non-answers. So now, as you yourself are mourning, there you are thinking about all your poor loved one went through at the end of their life (which can put you through the emotional wringer whether you know or are guessing), about where they are right now, if anywhere, and about death in general: your own death, the crippling fear of losing another loved one, or the inevitability of death in general.
They Won't Stop Talking About Death
It's very common for children to develop an obsession with death after loss, especially if it's a child's first experience with mortality. This may mean those complicated and emotional questions become a standard, daily conversation for you. Or they notice tragedies on the news or radio more. Or whatever game they invite you to play it ends in one of you dying. Or they see a dead bird in the yard and want to give it a funeral. Before you know it, you feel like you're living with Wednesday or Pugsley Addams, which is all you ever wanted as an angsty tween, but as an adult it's off-putting to have to handle such a macabre moppet.
They Don't Talk About It At All And Don't Seem To Care
Or just the opposite happens. You explain that your loved one is dead, and that means we never get to see them again, and your kid just looks back at you and says "OK" and goes back to what they were doing. No questions. No emotion. Just, like, a shrug. You press on: "No, but like, ever again. They're dead. We never get to see them or play with them or talk to them again." And they're just like, "All right."
And even though you know it's not their fault that they don't really understand, or that they are required to feel any particular way, you can irrationally resent the fact that they are not joining you in communal grief and mourning. Their indifferent attitude can trigger sorrow, confusion, or even anger in you. Just keep in mind that they are at a completely different stage in their psychological, intellectual, and emotional development than you (I mean... hopefully, right?) and even if they don't get it right away, they may still wind up processing this on their own over the coming days, weeks, or months.
They Are Observant And Will Read You Like A Book
If you are one to try to keep your emotions on the DL (some of us are #FromConnecticut), you may find that your body language and overall demeanor betrays you and your child will be able to call you out about how you feel. You may think you're doing a great job staying strong and acting like nothing's wrong, and then your kid will come up with, "Mommy, why are you sad?" Or they'll just do that kid thing where they respond in-kind to your unspoken stress.
They Just Cannot Get It
Even with the best, most eloquent, thoughtful answers about death imaginable, if your child is below a certain age, they aren't going to be able to understand it at all. Hence the million questions, or the complete lack of questions, or the lack of questions followed by angry indignation that the recently deceased can't come to the park with you.
You Cannot Make It Better For Them
If they're sick, you take them to the doctor. If they fall and scrape a knee, you give them a Band-Aid and a kiss. If their favorite costume from their dress-up box rips, you sew it back together. If they lose their teddy bear, you run to the store, buy a new one and pretend you found it, dismissing their skepticism with nervous but insistent laughter.
You can't fix it and you can't stop it and it's awful to be so helpless when your children want you to make something better.
They're Scared... And So Are You
You're in mourning, and as is often the case, living through the death of a loved one is apt to make you fearful of your own mortality. How the hell are you supposed to be brave for a little kid who's scared to go to sleep at night because a well-meaning relative told them that "dying is just like going to sleep" and now they think they're going away forever the minute they nod off?
Guys, I can't wrap this up with helpful personal advice or uplifting reassurance that there's a way to work around these issues. I don't have any and I'm not exactly sure there is. I'm a writer, and besides a lifelong attraction to the macabre and one college course on death and afterlife in the Biblical and Ancient world, this death business is outside of my realm of expertise. There are some resources available to you in your grief that may be able to help you as a mourner who is also a parent. Hospice is a wonderful organization and this sort of thing is very much in their wheelhouse; they have some helpful reading on how to talk to a child about death. The very funny, very wise Caitlin Doughty and her Order of the Good Death website has some excellent reading on the subject as well. But even after reading and knowing the "right thing to do," I don't necessarily think that's going to make all of these issues go away.
In short, I can't really help you, but perhaps I can provide a modicum of comfort in assuring you of this: If you're feeling that being tasked with helping another person understand death while you're grieving sucks, you're right. It suuuuuuuuucks. It sucks a whole hell of a lot. And I'm sorry it sucks and I'm sorry I can't make it suck less. But maybe if we lift that confusing taboo on talking about dying within our communities, we can feel a little more free to reach out to other parents who are going through this and complain to one another about just how sucky it is... and that won't make it stop sucking, but maybe an aspect of it will suck less.
Images: Loren Kerns/Flickr; Giphy(8); Tumblr(2)