Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Explaining Death to a Child Who Marvels at Everything in Life

Parenting involves tackling unpleasant topics, like death. We squish bugs, see road kill, lose beloved pets, and lay loved ones to rest. We talk about accidents and crimes that take lives, sometimes having to explain them to our kids. Mental health professionals decry the use of the term "sleeping" to describe death, on the grounds  that using that term may cause children to fear sleep. Most parents don't want to scare their kids; sugar-coating the truth makes it less painful in the short run, but harder to face later.

I have never shied away from discussing death with the kiddo. A few years back on one of our walks, we saw a chipmunk that had just been hit by a car. There wasn't a visible mark on it, or any blood, but it was obviously dead. The kiddo didn't know that, and was fascinated by seeing such a beautiful animal up close. I had to explain what had happened, in an age-appropriate way, of course. Sure, I could have said that the chippy was just "sleeping", but that seemed dumb. With all my prompting--OK, nagging--the kiddo to be wary of cars, was I going to suggest that an animal was taking a nap in the middle of the street? Not likely. No, I bit the bullet and explained that the chipmunk was in the road when a car came, the car hit him, and he died because it caused him so many booboos that his body couldn't work anymore.

Many, many times after that, we revisited the incident, pointing out the place where the chipmunk had been and discussing how nature had taken care of the body. Eventually, the kiddo made the connection between the chipmunk and my dad. My dad passed away years before the kiddo was born, but he is a continual presence for me. I tell the kiddo funny stories about him, and stories that I hope will serve as a good example to her. Frequently, I find coins on the ground or in the supermarket, which I believe are from my dad, and I make sure to thank him. The afterlife is a puzzling topic even to adults, but the kiddo accepts that death may be sad, but is not always scary.

This acceptance served us well when we had to take the kiddo to a relative's funeral out of state. There was nobody available to baby sit (most of our options were at the funeral, anyway), so we brought her with us. We expected to have to take turns keeping her in one of the lounges, but we were surprised when she wanted to go up to the casket. Some people looked at me as if I were crazy for taking her up to view a dead body, but I reminded her that the person in question wasn't in her body anymore, because she didn't need it. It was a body, but the most important part of the person was gone to...somewhere better, somewhere we would discover only after we had lived a long, long time. (It helped that this was a distant relative whom she didn't remember.) Sure, the kiddo did get a bit rowdy (she was 4 at the time) we took her to the lounge for a break, but when it really mattered, she was calm and respectful.

Does the kiddo have such a relaxed attitude toward death in spite of her exuberance for life...or because of it?

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