The Gerbil Died!
The other day, Skinny, our Gerbil died. Not in the classroom. He had to be put to sleep to keep him from suffering a long slow death from a tumor.
This experience reminded us that while death is a topic relevant to us all, for many it’s not an easy one to talk about. Yet, as with many things, it’s often easier for little children to talk about than for their parents. Why? Because they haven’t yet learned to be afraid of discussing painful things.
This is powerful to contemplate. Most of our kid’s perceptions naturally come from us, even if we’re not aware of it, (better from us than TV and video games)! And have you noticed that in many ways, it’s through teaching our children that we also learn? We learn more about what we think and about the “why” of things, and to remember to continue to ask “why?” as adults. We learn about where sayings came from that we’ve always said because we heard them, but didn’t think about until our child asked us, “Mommy, what does ______ mean?”
So when we talk about death with our children, we can remember that they are learning how to feel and think about it from us. They take their cues on how to think and feel about most things from us. So when they ask us difficult questions, it’s an opportunity for us to explain objectively, bits and pieces of the puzzle of life.
A child knows what death is, but they may not understand that once someone or something dies, they aren’t coming back. It’s irreversible. And since little children don’t have much concept of time, this can be the toughest part to explain. They’ll want to know where that person or pet has gone, why, and if they’re coming back. You will of course share with them your family philosophy on this, and when you do, try to make it compassionate, yet matter of fact.
Here are a few other ideas to help you discuss death with your child:
Death Isn’t Bad – Help your child understand death is a normal part of the life cycle. It may be sad but it doesn’t have to be bad, it just is. Everything alive, eventually dies, so teach them to focus on—and value—the life that we have and how to appreciate it. When they mourn missing a lost pet or loved one, teach them to focus on the time together over the time apart, and reminisce with them the good and funny times; the time of sharing love. As you take them through those memories, they will actually feel the warmth of the love and the tickles of giggles, and from that state you can remind them that those feelings and memories need never die.
Encourage Questions – Kids like to ask “why” to everything. While you might not know the answer to everything they ask, it opens up the conversation, and helps the whole family discuss the topic openly. Open family discussions often prove to be treasure chests of memories for those fortunate enough to participate in this, and it brings families closer together to share and listen respectfully and openly.
Children are more afraid of whispers and secrets than hearing hard truths. The monster under the bed is far more intimidating in the dark…in the shadows of not knowing, than when it is dispelled with the light of open dialogue toward understanding.
Share Your Beliefs – Without getting too metaphysical, explain your spiritual and/or religious beliefs about death. Children can use their wonderful imaginations to grasp enough to satisfy them in short segments of information, again, like pieces of the puzzle, they can only put together a few at a time, as they need them. So, don’t send them into information overload, as this can confuse them and cause them to remember disconnected snippets ending as misinformation. It can also cause them to be reluctant to ask more questions. So break it down, and imagine you are giving them just one or two pieces of this particular life puzzle.
Remember, every topic you talk with your children about, is an opportunity for you both to learn and share together, whether it’s something as serious as death, or as light as why they can’t touch the magazine photos to make them bigger. 😉