Talking to children about death is never easy.
Often this is because we are caught up in our own grief over a particular loss. So often children are pushed aside during these times and their feelings are left unaddressed and thus, we send the message that their feelings are unimportant. This can start a life cycle in which they learn to repress their emotions. They can bury them under deep and dark covers because during their childhood encouragement was not offered for the free expression of their thoughts and feelings. When all that was needed and wanted was understanding and patience, comfort and acceptance, children are often ignored because it is easier. This is especially true when the adults are experiencing their own grief and loss.
The following message came to me in my sleep, as most of my writings do, and so when I awakened, it was fresh on my heart. I send it to you with love and respect.
Death opens many doors, not just the spiritual door to what it is you believe lies "on the other side" but doors for personal growth, completion of one's own legacy, and the very important door of communication, particularly with children.
Just because children remain silent during these times of grief and loss does not mean their minds and hearts are not heavy with questions and concerns. For instance, what would happen to them if their parents died? Where would they live and with whom? Older children might be apprehensive about whether or not they would be able to finish college because of a change in finances (this can be caused by the "economic death" we now experience as well.)
Here are some ways to open the door to communication regarding death:
- Choose a time to talk without interruptions and distractions. Don't choose the time when the child is watching a favorite TV show, when the house or patient’s room is very busy, or other people will be nearby.
- Choose a place that is comfortable and comforting. It can be a window seat in the bedroom, out in the garden, or a quiet corner of a porch. Allowing nature to be part of the landscape brings peace and tranquility to the conversation.
- Remain relaxed in both your speech and demeanor. Children can pick up your tension or lack of comfort very easily. Be sure to avoid any stern criticism of people or events by staying on task with the subject. You are not there to judge, but to send love, both to the deceased and to the child as you teach about this subject.
- Keep your conversation age appropriate. Do some research about levels of understanding and keep your focus at their level. It is wise to have this conversation separately with different age groups to avoid giving too much information to younger children who cannot absorb what older children can.
- Be prepared to listen patiently, to answer questions, and be sure to remain focused on the child.
- Physical contact with the child during the conversation provides comfort. Reach out to touch a hand, rub a shoulder, plant a kiss on the cheek at any time. This provides a sense of compassion that will remain in the atmosphere as you speak.
- Eye-to-eye contact is important so the child can know that he or she is the center of attention, that your mind and heart are present in the moment. Avoid looking away, unless it is to grasp some energy from your surroundings.
- Be big enough and smart enough to say you don't have all the answers. Children need to know that we, as parents or caregivers, are only human.
- Demonstrate your love of life, your respect for others, and share your spiritual beliefs, but do this more with your attitude than with your words. Children learn more by what they see you do than by what they hear you say.
- Know that children are listening to your conversations with your friends, other family members, to television coverage, to their friends as well. They are inundated with more information than they care to receive. They really want to know what happened to the person who died, and what will happen to the deceased person's children. It is all very personal for them.
Every situation children face (whether it is our own children or the children of our patients) and every situation we face ourselves, is an opportunity for growth. If we can help each other to walk down the road of life with courage, offering inspiration and guidance to each other, we will have fulfilled the golden rule - to love one another.
Sometimes the words we use to inspire children are words to which we, ourselves, should listen. Often the tools we use to teach our young people are tools that would be well used in our own adult lives. In talking to children about death, and in understanding death ourselves, it is important to cling to the belief that this world in which we live is a gift given to us each day to do with as we choose. It is also a huge responsibility to live it wisely and to reach out to others with charity and compassion. It is in giving that we receive. It is in providing comfort that we are comforted, and it is in loving that we are loved.
So, how do we talk to our children about death? How would you like to be spoken to about it? With kindness, understanding and compassion? Children are people too, and all we need to do is treat them as such.