|This essay is also part of the "Let the Little|
Ones Come to Him" seris.
Our family is very lucky and somewhat unusual. My husband and I have four living grandparents (total!), and many aunts, uncles and cousins. Not only do they know their great-grandparents, but they see everyone at least once a year. They have loving relationships with all these people and look forward to seeing them. They are very, very blessed.
But with this blessing comes a downside: the knowledge that, at a young age, they will likely have to deal with the illness and/or death of many people they love. Because they know all their relatives on a personal level, I imagine it might be harder for them than it might be for the average child, who only knows their great-extended-family through pictures and the odd card.
I have never wanted to shield my children from some of the harder life-topics, like birth and sexuality. We talk openly and honestly about how babies are made and the physical differences between boys and girls. But when the questions about death came, spurred on by the death of our beloved dog, I found myself hemming and hawing. We had explained that the dog was dead and she was in heaven- wasn’t that enough? It wasn’t for our Herd and in the days and months that followed, we were asked the hard questions about death, dying and what happens to people and animals after they die. The questions, and my determination to answer them as openly and as honestly as possible, forced me to talk to them about this tough topic. In the end, I was more comfortable discussing death and the afterlife than I was born.
Why was I comfortable with questions about the beginning of life, but not the end?
I’m sure part of it is the stage of life we are in. With four children and many of our friends and families still having babies, pregnancy and birth are topics of frequent conversations. Generally, birth is a happy topic and people like discussing happy things. Death, though, isn’t considered happy and our first instinct as parents is to shield them from life’s difficulties. When death came to our house, the first thing I wanted to do was say, “Yeah it happened but let’s get back to the happy stuff!”
My instinct was normal but not necessarily good. Childhood is the time to learn how to handle “big emotions” in a healthy way, so they can know how to deal with these emotions when they are adults. I needed to show them healthy ways of dealing with something that is very difficult.
Recently, this topic has come up again but in a much, much more difficult way than the family dog: a member of our extended family is very ill. My children are older and their understanding of illness and death is much more complex than it was before. The hard questions are coming again, but this time they are about a human, not a dog.
It would be easy to shield my children from this event, as our extended family is not physically close to us. However, I’ve chosen to be age-appropriately open and honest with them. For one, I know they might overhear my husband and myself talking and I don’t want them to think we are the ones who are sick. They have also seen me upset and crying, something that can be scary for children. I think that knowing why Mommy is crying makes it easier for the children to see; plus, it acknowledges that crying is a healthy response to upsetting news.
As Catholics, many of my answers to their questions are rooted in our faith. The children have gone with my to the church to light candles, asking various saints for their intercession. I have encouraged the children to pray for our family member, both in their personal prayers and when we pray as a family. We also have sent cards and drawn pictures. They like being able to do something for the person that is ill.
Our family member is doing well but that doesn’t erase the knowledge that no one knows when they will pass on to the next world. Whether or not the children will attend funerals depends on a variety of factors. My husband and I agree that they will likely travel with us but we will not force them to view a body or approach a casket. We plan on reminding them that the body is just a shell; a person’s soul lives on forever. It may be very hard for them to see people they love mourning but I hope that seeing adults mourn reassures them of the fact that everyone deals with these big emotions- they are hard and hurt but they are normal and healthy.
For me, walking with my children through the hard questions and experiences about illness, death and dying is one of the hardest parts of parenting. I wish could keep all the hurts of life from them, especially things like this. However, I can’t and I hope that by being open and honest with them, I help them handle a difficult situation in a healthy manner.
Tips for answering questions about illness, death and dying:
1. Be honest: it's okay to say that you don't know the answer to something.
2. Be age appropriate: What I tell my children about illness and how the body works depends on their age and understanding. My older children may receive a more complex answer than my younger kids.
3. Assure them of love: I always tell the kids that I love them and the person who is ill or has died loves them too. Love never dies.
4. Remind them it is okay to mourn, cry and ask hard questions: I've told the children that they can ask me anything and I won't get mad. I know they might be mad at God and ask why He took this person from them. It's okay to have those feelings too: God can handle it.
5. Allow them to see you mourn, but it's also okay to ask for privacy and cry in private. I've also set limits with our children and asked that they come to myself or my husband with their questions. Other family members might not welcome children's questions when they are dealing with their own emotions and that's okay.
6. Decide what you want to tell them about the afterlife: I think this goes for younger children more than older ones. Younger kiddos seem to want concrete answers more than older children, who can entertain higher level thoughts and explore different beliefs about what happens to a soul when the person dies. Our family is Catholic and we have explained these answers in accordance with the Catholic Church's teachings.
7. Enlist help: There are a variety of books that explain illness and death to children. Use them! There is nothing wrong with asking a consular, child-life specialist or social worker for help. These people are more than happy to give you resources or talk with your children.***
Visit Living Peacefully with Children and Authentic Parenting to find out how you can participate in next month's Authentic Parenting Blog Carnival! Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants: (This list will be live and updated by afternoon February 22 with all the carnival links.)
- A Lie Is A Lie - Jennifer at Hybrid Rasta Mama outlines ten reasons why she believes parents lie to their children on a more than casual bases.
- Telling Truths - Survivor at Surviving Mexico writes about the difficulty in raising a bi-cultural child when cultural norms are not mutually exclusive, specifically in the area of lying.
- Honesty in Illness and Death - Laura at WaldenMommy:Life Behind the Red Front Door writes how she and her husband strive to be open and honest with their Herd of children about tough subjects, especially death.
- Talking Honestly About Death - Amy W. at Me, Mothering, and Making it All Work, is glad she chose to be honest with her children about the deaths of their pets, despite her fears of upsetting them.
- Freedom through Honesty - At Living Peacefully with Children, Mandy speaks to how honesty allows us to break free of the chains which bind us.
- Guilty Children? - Jorje of Momma Jorje touches on the many ways lies (and accusations of lies) have impacted her abilities as a parent.
- Choosing Our Words: Everyday Honesty With Children - In her guest post at The Badass Breastfeeder, Alice discusses the importance of being honest with children, even when it seems easier not to.
- Truth/Lies...Accuracy, Honesty...Love - Mari from Honey on the Bum talks about how a shift in perspective helps her deal with inaccurate statements and secrets with her kids.