June 1, 2012

Talking to your kids about death

"Daddy, I will miss you."
"When will you miss me, buddy?" I replied, quizzically, having only just recently gotten home from work.
"When you're dead."


In grade nine, a friend from my neighbourhood I’d know since kindergarten committed suicide. In grade 11, a classmate died ice climbing. One of my brother’s very best friends died in a car crash not long after high school. My sister was friends with a man executed for no reason in a gang- style shooting, he himself having no gang affiliations whatsoever. Wrong place, wrong time. Another acquaintance from high school days, a brilliant and promising doctor, was mowed down a few years ago along with his fiancee in a hit and run on the night they were engaged. In 2004, a friend of mine, barely into his 20’s, succumbed to his illnesses in his sleep. Five years ago, another high school classmate and her boyfriend—both experienced backcountry enthusiasts—died when a snow cave collapsed on them. A few years ago, before kids of our own, my wife and I attended a memorial service for an eight month old. Just in the past year, another high school classmate attempted to kill his girlfriend, and then hurled himself off a bridge, ending his own life. Another friend from the high school era lost her battle with cancer this year. Last month, as my last post attested to, another friend was lost through a tragic mishap during what should have been a great adventure. You can also pepper in various circumstances of cancer taking away loved ones, friends and colleagues, the evidence of which you need only search this blog to find.

That is a long winded intro to say this: I'm old enough. I "get it". It is little wonder, with all of these types of things whirling around us, and many of them quite recent, that my three year old has recently seemed a little bit obsessed with death.

Adding fuel to his fire and more on his level, the Vancouver aquarium, which we frequent, has also had the recent deaths of belugas, a dolphin and a sea otter to deal with.

We don’t particularly believe in skirting the truth with our kids when they ask us the genuine questions about “what happened” or “where did they go”, but the fact is, the concept of death is still a very abstract thing to our little people. I, personally, believe in God. Our family belongs to the United Church of Canada, though our participation rate has been extremely low in the past few years as our kids find the church environment to be, shall we say, a sensory overload. So it’s not as though the kids have had a whole lot of influence outside the home on concepts of an afterlife.

So how do you handle it? I’d love to hear other people’s experience with this subject. Whether you believe in God or gods, or no such things, death is a subject common to all and presumably just as scary a subject to have to broach with a child! With exception of the intro, which happened last night, our son has been relatively quiet on the subject in recent weeks, but he’s a thinker. And it’ll only be a matter of time before he asks another question that we will struggle to find the right answer to. He has come to understand that perhaps there is this place called ‘Heaven’ and that people like Granddad Jim, Granddad Gord, the beluga and the sea otter (and our neighbour’s cat, also recently deceased) are all hanging out there. But much of the “understanding” ends there.

It’s a tough thing, when your three year old has already heard of death and witnessed illness to the point they are concerned with their own mortality and feel prompted to ask their mommy “when I get older, and you are older, will you get sick and die?”

It’s a tough thing when asked, to explain that ‘a graveyard is where people’s bodies get put when they die’ and ‘no, underneath it is not heaven, though it is a place we can visit to remember people who die’.

It’s a tough thing when asked, to explain that ‘no, you can’t get to heaven in a plane, and no, you can’t visit, period’.

For all of the people I have known who have died over the years, be they close friends or family or merely casual acquaintances largely from my past, I have at least had the benefit of being old enough to understand that illness happens, that tragedy, with seemingly no point of logic, happens and that it’s important to ask the questions about it and grieve it if you must, and find some peace, however you manage to do that. Less of an option for a three year old and a two year old, I think, when there are still so many puzzle pieces of life still scattered about.

I wish I could sit my kids down, right now, and explain it all out to them and lend to them the understanding that “these things happen” all in one long lecture about reality. But “life” is overwhelming enough for people so young, let alone explaining “death”.

My son asked me, a few weeks ago, as I was preparing to attend a memorial for my friend “daddy, are you going to work?” He was confused, I think, because it was Sunday and I was wearing a suit—generally a practice reserved for Monday to Friday. I said “No, buddy,” I’m going to say goodbye to my friend”. And he answered me by asking “the one that fell?”

It is foolish to think that children so young do not listen, hear, understand, and think at length on our words. We owe them a duty to be honest about even the toughest of subjects, to respect that they are intelligent beings that know a lot, and think about more than they say. I am hopeful that the simple honesty we try to employ with our kids neither over simplifies the realities nor overburdens their developing minds.

I say just love ‘em, talk to them in a way you would want to be talked to if you didn’t understand, and the words will come out right. Some bridges you don’t want to have to cross, but everyone comes to a span at some point, and some are pretty narrow. I don’t think it’s about not looking down, but about knowing where to put your feet as you go.

In the meantime, I’m glad our son is generally more focused on loving preschool, loving his bike, and digging up worms in the garden with his sister. These are the things I’m glad to be able to explain!!