I have been under pressure on how to explain death to a child, ever since my grandson of 5 years began speaking about old people ‘being taken away by God' and of how he didn't want to go to God, etc. It has made me thinking.
Is there a way of explaining death? Should one even try to, instead of skirting the issue? In fact one of the suggestions given to me was that it was best to divert a child's mind to more pleasant things whenever it talks about death. It is a pretty bad idea from my point of view. A child is curious and wants to know. Moreover today is an age of information and withholding any may result in getting wrong, disastrous, information, deleterious to the child's mental well-being.
The first thing is to accept that there are areas that we don't know about. There is no need to pretend to be omniscient in front of your child. Just explain what you know or think making it clear that you do not have the full answer. Do use your creative skills to explain death to the child gently in such a way that the child ceases to be scared of death, doesn't matter what exactly he or she understood or accepted. This may take several, gradual sessions, but do it.
Do engage the child in conversations about death whenever it is raised, choosing your words carefully. Fortunately, nature herself has found a way in which everyone grows up understanding it in one's own way without any one having to explain it explicitly (as one knew about it). Have most of us not grown up so?
I remember when my daughter of 4 years or so asking me once if there was God. Don't know whether she remembers it or not or what she accepted of my answer. My answer was a blank, "I don't know" Then I went on to say that I happened to accept God as some kind of divinity that I look up to but wasn't sure of anything else (I didn't have to tell her that I had myself gone through a phase of atheism, agnosticism before rediscovering God in my life). I ended up telling her that it was entirely up to her to decide whether or not there was God and she need not do it until she was much older.
My satisfaction with this answer was my conscience: I was honest and also gave the clear signal that adults need not know everything.
The same approach can be used when explaining death. I told my grandson about how flowers bloom brilliantly and then fade and ‘die', only to fall into the soil and help more flowers to bloom (my explanation was lengthier than what I could express here). I also told him about clouds falling as rain, flowing into rivers; going to the sea, to become clouds again).
I am not sure how much he understood but I made sure to use the word, ‘maybe' to give him the hint that I was not all sure. As for his fear, I tried to tell him that he had a very long way to go and he will realize that there was nothing unpleasant about it. I am only sure of one thing - I didn't skirt the issue.
My suggestion to parents is this: try to explain death in any manner you feel fit at the moment - avoiding your religious or mythological forced explanation, however - accepting that there is no perfect answer. Let the child understand it in its own way.
A child confronts death the first time either through the death of a pet or a close relative. That is when the child begins to ask about it, more so, in the case a school going child when another child may raise this issue. He or she seems to accept that the dead has gone to ‘God', or ‘Heaven' or to the sky and so on. This doesn't seem unacceptable to it as it seems to get reconciled to the missing of the dead pet or person. What may rankle, sometimes, is the fear of death, which can't be helped (many adults, especially in the western world remain scared of death throughout their lives) but will vanish by and by as long as it is not repressed.
So, go ahead. Don't wait for a perfect answer. Just engage the child in conversation and let nature take care of it.
As a tail piece, I would like to quote one of my old favourites by John Donne:
"Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe,
For, those whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie."
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