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Talking to a 5-year old about death

This is not my first blog about talking to kids about death. I wrote on the topic even before I had a child of my own and, now that I do, there seems to be an updated blog around this theme for me to do every year or so, as my daughter gets older.

She is 5 now, as you may have guessed from the title, so I have more to say on the topic, as we have a lot more conversations around it.

It’s been years since I’ve read anything on the experience children have getting their heads around death. The reason for this is that I’m not sure any of it is that useful. Though I’ve seen many an article on what it’s like for kids to first understand the concept of death, I have to wonder how many of these kids were raised in an environment where death was spoken about normally, naturally and almost mundanely. Where it wasn’t hidden, lied about, softened beyond recognition (no, death is not ‘going to sleep for a very long time’!) and buried within unhelpful euphemisms, so that it didn’t slap them in the face when they first really got the gist of what it’s all about. I’d guess not many, as this is very rare. So stories from and studies of kids who discover the concept of their own and others death, from within a fearful environment, don’t really tell me anything.

Anecdotally, many people have told me about their own traumatic or difficult experiences as they first realised as a child that they could die or their parents could die but, as I’ve mentioned above, I have to wonder whether things would have been different if they’d been raised in a death-positive environment.

So, like with most of my parenting, I experiment on my daughter….and hope for the best! So far I’m pleased with how it’s going.

A lot of people ask how to bring up the topic of death with children. This is the easy bit. You don’t need to bring it up. Life brings it up all the time. What you have to do is quit ignoring it or hiding it or trying to ‘soften’ it for your kids. I’ve always spoken to my daughter openly about death. To date we’ve never had a sit-down serious chat about it. Maybe we never will. I simply address it when it comes up and talk to her honestly about it. I’ve done this since she was tiny. When someone we know dies. When pets die. When other animals die – this includes insects and roadkill. Death is literally everywhere all the time. Just stop hiding from it and stop trying to hide it from them. If I had a dollar for every time I heard a parent lower their voice or change the subject or try and explain away death or stop any (perfectly natural and healthy) death play in kids…’s common to see and hear this in parents. Too common.

So that’s your first pace to start – allow the topic.

Next is to speak honestly about it. To begin with that means calling it death. My daughter has never heard me say that anyone ‘passed away’ or ‘passed over’ or that we ‘lost’ anyone. And she has sure as shit never heard me say that someone has ‘gone to sleep’ unless they really have just gone to sleep. It’s death… that’s what we call it. People die….so that’s what we say.

And next, and most importantly, is to answer their questions honestly. It’s as easy…and as difficult…as that. Adults routinely lie to kids about death. Adults who were taught to be frightened of death simply pass their fear on to their kids. If this is you, it’s not your fault. You’ve probably never been told to do anything else, realised there is another way, or even see a problem with it to begin with. The cycle of fear gets passed down with everyone thinking they’re ‘protecting’ the next generation, when really they’re raising them to fear and deny death – a topic that actually comes much more naturally to children- and perpetuates the same unhealthy cycle.

Kids often approach death with curiosity. It’s the adults around them that meet it with fear, denial, and awkwardness. Many adults worry how to teach kids to handle death, when the truth is that mostly adults should shut up and let kids show them how to handle death.

Realise that the issue might not be how your kids will handle the topic. It’s more likely how you are handling it that’s the problem. Acknowledge your own fear and discomfort, and understand that this is likely quite a barrier, rather than assuming your kids simply feel the same way you do.

As a kid I remember a family who would come to our house. I found them so weird and hilarious, because the boy my age and his mum would both just about leap out of their skins when out cats got anywhere near them. They didn’t just dislike cats, they were terrified of them. I’ve never seen anything like it since. They’d jump up on the sofa the same way I might if I was surprised by a snake. Fancy being frightened of cats! But they were. And here’s the key bit: both of them were. Why do you think the boy was so afraid of cats? It’s fairly obvious that he probably learnt it from his mother. She reacted to cats with fear and panic…and passed that on to him. It’s the same with death. When kids come to you with innocent, curious, and very matter-of-fact questions and you respond with fear (and I don’t mean you jump on the sofa in panic. But that any of your answers likely come from a place of fear…and you know your children can smell that on you!) then your kids catch this from you. Fear is pretty contagious.

So here are some honest example of my answers to my daughter’s questions. These are all questions she’s asked in the last couple of months, prompted by god-knows-what, at whatever random time, and always asked very matter-of-factly….

In the car on the way to Kmart

Kaia: “Mama, Nana’s really old so she’ll die soon, won’t she?”

Me: “Well Nana is old”, (sorry, Nana), “and old people do die….but I don’t know when she’ll die. She could die soon….but she could also live a lot longer. My Dad died when he was a lot younger than your Nana, but my Nana” (that’s Kaia’s great-grandmother who she met when she was tiny) “lived to 97 years old, which is really, really old. So we just don’t know.”

See. Honest. It can be tempting to reassure them that people can live a long time and Nana will live for many years and they don’t need to worry about that at all….but it’s a lie, isn’t it? Because we just don’t know. This answer would come out of fear – fear of admitting the truth ourselves, fear of frightening or worrying them. From what I’ve seen, they worry when you pass your worry on to them.

One morning over breakfast

Kaia: “You won’t die, will you Mama?”

Me: “Well, I will one day. Everyone dies eventually. But if you mean will I die soon while you’re little… then I hope not, but I can’t know. I do everything I can to look after my body and stay healthy” (this is something we talk about a lot) “and I hope to live a long time….but I also might not. We just don’t know”.

Kaia: ” But if you died I’d have to live with (our flatmate) and he’d look after me?”

Me: “No, Baby. If I died you’d go and live with (my friends) and they’d look after you and you’d be part of their family”.

This is important. People often think that they have to prepare a whole speech for their kids about death, what it is, where we go after, etc. But typically kids ask very specific questions – that’s all they need an answer to – and these questions often relate to their own wellbeing, as they rely on us so completely. I had been worried about this particular question, as the friends who are her nominated guardians live in another country and she’s never even met them. But once I’d told her this, and that they have kids who would be her siblings too, she was happy with the answer and didn’t ask any further questions.

Note: yes, this does mean you need to select guardians, just in case. Most of us are raised by our parents and most people at least make it through childhood with both still alive….but not everybody. To be able to answer these very important questions for your kids you need to know the answer (or the options) already. And if you haven’t selected them, because it’s too difficult to know who would be their guardians, then just imagine how the hell your family (or the legal system) would figure it out for you if you were to die. This one is a non-negotiable – get to it!

Talking about my brother’s cat who recently died and the little funeral we were planning for him. Also at breakfast

Kaia: “Will we put Magoo in the box?”

Me: “No, darling, We don’t have his body. After he died, he stayed at the vet and they cremated him. That means they burned his body. This is a quite normal thing to do after someone dies, though some people like their bodies to be buried in the ground instead to go back to nature”.

End of conversation.

Now are you ready for the real doozie? Where you totally have to get past allll of your own fear and discomfort to answer honestly? Because the conversation on the way to Kmart about Nana didn’t end there. After that, she talked about my auntie who died “because her body was just too sick and it couldn’t heal itself anymore”. And after that came this question….asked almost rhetorically as if it were a very silly idea…

Kaia: “…but kids don’t die, do they?!”

You want to lie right now, don’t you? I know you do. But that doesn’t work.

Me: “Actually they do die sometimes. Like with everyone else, we can keep kids bodies as healthy as possible, but sometimes they can get really sick too or they can have an accident and die. It doesn’t happen a lot, but it does happen sometimes”.

She didn’t ask anything else after this. And we went off merrily to Kmart to buy birthday presents and unnecessary plastic crap.

As I said earlier and as you’ll see if you read back these conversations…it is as easy…and as difficult…as being totally honest. The truth is that grandparents die, and that sometimes parents die and kids have to live with someone else, and yes, that sometimes kids die too.

I know how tempting it is, still, to want to give ‘white lies’, to ‘protect’ them but again, realise that this has more to do with your own fear and your fear of their fear. I promise you that you are not protecting them doing this. You are merely passing on your own fear, like my childhood friend and his fear of cats.

My daughter has yet to mention her own death, or ask anything further about what happens to bodies after death, or anything about what happens to us after death or where we go after death. But when she does I’ll answer them just as honestly. Actually the ‘where we go after death’ warrants it’s own blog, as we all have such different views and what exactly should you say?!… so stay tuned for that one.

I mentioned earlier that I’m pleased with how my ‘experiment’ with talking to my daughter about death is going. To be really clear, the aim of this isn’t to stop her feeling any pain or any fear or any worry at all. It’s simply to allow her to grow up relating to death as natural and normal, and something we talk about and contemplate as easy as we do many other things (though I would argue it’s vastly more important than many other things). There are times she might be worried or frightened when she realises something about death – that’s ok. We’ll deal with that together. There are times she’s been upset by death. We have dealt with many dead animals – she has even held dying and dead kittens in her hands – and most recently she cried herself to sleep after hearing of the death of my brother’s cat. This is ok. The goal is not to block this out and make her completely immune to death. To be immune to death you’d have to be immune to life. I want her to know death as a part of life just as natural and as important as birth.

As I’ve said – and this is the third time now so hopefully you’re getting it – it’s as easy and as difficult as being honest. So once you get past the difficult bit – which is mostly your own personal stuff – you’ll realise there is an ease and simplicity with just being honest. You don’t need to read a book. You don’t need to rehearse a monologue. You don’t need to sit them down one Saturday morning at 9am with a white board and props. They ask a question. You answer it. That’s all you need to do.