Think that children don’t think about death? Think again. An abundance of research has shown that death can often be a pervasive concern for young kids. If you are a parent who has not had the dreaded ‘death discussion’ with your child, just wait– it’s coming. And it will probably come at a completely unexpected moment.
A major life loss such as that of a friend, parent, or sibling is not needed for a child to begin wondering about death. All it takes is the death of a pet, a dead bird in the yard, or something as benign as a dead leaf falling from a tree.
So what is a parent to do? Besides vampire and zombie movies there is very little cultural acquaintance with death for the average Westerner, and even less knowledge in how to broach the subject with children. In many cultures death is a familiar subject and is often psychologically integrated through religious ritual where both parents and children participate. Without such ritual many parents today are forced to go-it-alone, looking to psychological research for help.
But the research is split. One camp believes children should be spared death realities. Psychologists like Sylvia Athony go so far as to suggest that certain death-anxiety related neuroses can develop in children if death-denial is not reinforced until they reach an appropriate developmental stage. Others accept the maxim of Jerome Bruner who said, “Any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development.” Harlene Galen explains that euphemisms used for death such as, ‘gone to sleep,’ are “wafer-thin barricades against death fears and only bewilder the child.” Irvin Yalom warned that “children do not ignore the issue and, as is true for sex, find other sources of information that are often unreliable or are even more frightening or bizarre than reality.” Oh so true, especially in the age of Google.
When the research on methodology is split it is usually a sign of neutrality. There is no single method of explaining death to a child that is universally superior to another.
However, there is one universally superior attitude to take with your child that can make all the difference in the world.
As every parent knows, children are highly perceptive to their parent’s emotional world. They know when you are upset, or when you are happy, when you are confident, and when you are a total wreck.
When your child quizzes you concerning death remember the one thing that matters most: Don’t be Rattled!
Reflecting uneasiness sends a child the undeniable message that death is something to be extremely worried about. A child takes cues on how to relate to things based on how mom and dad relate to them – “If mommy and daddy are uncomfortable with the question then I should be too.” Nevermind what is actually said, the nuances of a parent’s non-verbals tell the real story.
One reason why researchers believe that ritual is highly effective in normalizing death for children is because they are able to experience how adults deal with the mystery of death within the safety of the ritualistic environment. Irvin Yalom relates an interesting story of death ritual practiced by the Foré tribe in New Guinea. The ritual entails both children and adults participating in devouring a dead relative. He explains that, “Most likely this experience is not catastrophic for the child because the adults participate in the activities without severe anxiety; it is part of a natural, un-selfconscious stream of life.”
The “without severe anxiety” part is key.
You can take or leave the “devouring a dead relative” part.
But parents need not have a specific ritual on hand in order to normalize death for their children. The most important element is that the parent is, to the greatest degree possible, free of overt anxiety. And here comes the rub. Authentic courage in this discussion requires, of course, that a parent confront his or her own death fears prior to such discussions; something very few of us are ready or willing to do.
Death is not something that any person, no matter their degree of self-awareness, ever becomes wholly settled with. It is quite alright if one is not free from death fears, but, at a minimum, it is important to be real with one’s self about it. The dirty little secret is that no one is alright. The old “everyone is going to die” line that one often hears is an attempt by some at making death impersonal. It allows some to feel that they’ve conquered their own death fear. In reality it’s pure self-delusion – a grossly inauthentic way to relate to one’s own mortality.
A good friend recently reminded me of an old motto rehearsed in one form or another by all the great philosophers and ascetics throughout the ages – Not everyone is going to die. YOU are going to die, you and you alone.
Cross that Rubicon of thought and discussing death with your child will be a breeze.
Thanks for reading.
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