Morbid I know. But seriously, how do we help our children deal with death? Anyone? Anyone at all know the answer? I certainly don’t. Death is such a terrifying concept when you’re a child. I can still remember my first brush with death, completely not understanding the concept at all. I can’t remember how old I was exactly. I couldn’t have been older than 5. I remember finding a dead magpie in the back yard. I remember racing to my dad to tell him what I’d found. I remember feeling incredibly sad. I remember asking my dad “Why can’t we just give it some medicine to make it better?” I didn’t understand that it wouldn’t wake up. That it wouldn’t get better. After that moment I don’t recall if my mother or father sat me down and explained what death was. Maybe they did. Or perhaps they just avoided the subject, not wanting to put their child through the existential horror of one day simply not existing. They must have explained the concept to me at some point soon after, because my next fearful memory associated with death was the concept of my own impending mortality. I recall my mother conducting one of her extreme cleaning sessions. She was using methylated spirits as a surface disinfectant. I was at the time was playing with her very old typewriter (I guess I did start early after all). She came through my room and wiped over the keys with the lightly soaked cloth, then wiped the residue off with another cloth. I remember asking her what she was using. She told me what it was, then proceeded to install in me the very important value of never touching the methylated spirits, because if I accidentally ingested any of it, it would eat my stomach and I would DIE! Now I’m sure I’m probably exaggerating this memory. My mother probably only warned me not to touch something dangerous. But my child brain interpreted it as imminent doom. The sudden fear arose because I was typing along, then licked my finger to turn a page. Immediately I realised what I had done. The keyboard had been wiped with the metho, I had licked my fingers, therefore my stomach was about the be destroyed and I was going to die. I felt it starting already. It was a cold tingling sensation in the pit of my stomach. It was the first time I was really scared. I was utterly convinced I was about to die. My mother probably didn’t understand why I suddenly started becoming so clingy, why I stopped sleeping well at night. I think I was too embarrassed to tell her why I was feeling the way I was. At the time we were still quite religious and went to church every Sunday. Mum realised I was suffering some sort of existential crisis and tried to comfort me through the Word of God. Unfortunately that only made things worse. The idea of eternity or “Forever and ever” as was so frequently put in church, did nothing to comfort me, but magnified my fears. So my experiences left me both not wanting to die, but also not wanting to live forever. It’s something that still affects me even to this day. Sometimes when I think about it hard enough, I get that same cold hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach….Now I’m not saying that my parents didn’t handle teaching me about death very well, or didn’t do a good job. I don’t think any person really knows how to deal with death properly, let alone how a parent teaches a child how to cope.
After my last blog you’re aware that I’ve lost someone quite close to me. At the same time of dealing with my own emotions, I’ve also started thinking about how to deal with Stormaggedon when he eventually has to face the same sadness. Leading up to this particular death I felt the same obligation again regarding Stormy as I had in the past when deciding if I should bring him along when I visit people. My friend’s mother had literally only seen Stormy twice in his life. It wasn’t because I was avoiding bringing him, sometimes it just wasn’t convenient to bring him for a visit, and I always assumed there would be more time. In the weeks leading up to her death I knew that time was becoming very short, and was desperate to bring Stormy for a visit. I thought it would be a wonderful pick-me-up, and I was very eager to cheer her up. However his reactions to stressful situations and people who are not at all well had not gone well in the recent past. Currently my own Nanny has not been well, having had a stroke and now living in a nursing home. On the two occasions that I brought Stormy for a visit, it was not the happy little outing I thought it would be. Entering the room we found my Nanny lying in bed both times, frail, small and very tired looking. Stormy took one look and turned tail. Trying to force him to stay only caused the most extreme frightened tantrum I have seen him throw. He buried himself into my shoulder screaming “No no no no!” over and over again. He sobs turned into ridiculous heaving and I’m pretty sure by the end of our visit, most of it was quite put on. The part that frustrated me the most was the fact that he had absolutely no problem wandering into other peoples’ rooms and even walking up to other bed bound patients to curiously say hello. But every time we tried to bring him back to Nanny he’d freak out all over again. Such visits were cut invariably short, and I have not since braved going back at this stage. My idea was to cheer my Nanny up with a visit from her first and only (so far) great grandchild. What she was met with was a screaming, frightened toddler, probably making her feel bad for the fact that she was the apparent cause of his anguish. This is something that I would hate to repeat. So the idea of bring Stormy to see my Second Mummy, knowing full well what state her condition was, I only imagined that this would be exactly how he would react, in fear and sadness. That was the last thing I wanted to inflict on her, knowing her time left with us was so short. I knew that she already felt like a burden to those around her, feeling guilty for “making” others have to take such care of her (if only she knew that was never how anyone ever felt. They only wanted make her time left as comfortable, and as loved as possible). The thought of inflicting my screaming, tantruming toddler into her already incredibly stressful world was too unbearable for me. But not only that, selfishly as a mother I wanted to protect Stormy from experiencing that situation. I didn’t want to expose him to such a painful scenario. He’s still so very young, but oh so very smart. I know even though he wouldn’t have understood exactly what was going on, he would have known that it wasn’t at all good.
So what do you do as a parent? Do you force your children, with the possibility of traumatising them, to visit and interact with the sick and the dying because it might please those to see the young? Or do we protect our young from pain and trauma, for as long as possible? I feel like there are so many answers to these questions. Some people will say that death is a necessary part of life and children need to find out about it, the sooner the better so that they learn to cope with it earlier. Others will say we should protect our young from trauma in order to prevent trauma in them. The Right will say “Children need to suck it up, because life is full of pain. How will they cope in life if they don’t know how to handle pain?”. The Left will counter with “Children should be allowed to be children. There’s always time to learn about the sad things in life. We shouldn’t force them to do things for others just because it’ll make others happy. They won’t know how to how to empower themselves to say no if they get forced into things when they are older.” Argh, this argument does my head in! This kind of back and forth bickering runs through my head on a daily basis, about EVERYTHING!
So how DO we handle death? How can we teach our children that all things will eventually die? How do we allow them to go through such an enlightened quandary at such a young age, when their emotional abilities are not yet at such a level to process this kind of information? That it may leave them with that same cold tingling sensation in the pit of their stomachs that kept me up at night as a little girl, and frankly still keeps me up at night even now. Personally I think we should always be honest with our children. If they ask, tell them the truth. Don’t use fancy big words, but don’t talk down to them. Children can tell when you are being condescending. Protect them from the worst of a sad time, but don’t hide things from them. Don’t lie and say things like “Grandma just went on a long trip” or that the dog “went to the farm”. Worst of all, don’t ever compare death to sleeping, not if you ever want to get a good night’s sleep again.
Frankly I don’t have the answers. I wish I did. And one day when Stormy asks me about why people have to die, I only hope I have the strength to answer him. And hopefully not freak him out. The last thing I want is for him to develop that never ending cold tingling sensation in the pit of his stomach…