My grandmother passed away recently, making both of my parents orphans, in turn leaving my brother and me grandparentless. She was my father’s mother; his father passed away early last year. I never had the pleasure of knowing my mother’s father because he died months before I was born. And we lost my other grandmother in 2010 — she was better known as “Nanny.”
Fortunately, my parents never had to explain death to my brother or me when we were young. Nanny was really our first loss of somebody very close to us, and my brother and I were fifteen and nineteen years old at that point, respectively. I’ll say again that these circumstances are certainly fortunate, but I feel that they also contributed to my parents skipping an extremely important conversation with their children.
From what I recall, my first real experience with death — that is, attending a wake and/or funeral — was in third or fourth grade. One of my classmates had lost a brother who suffered from a crippling medical condition since birth. I remember hearing it was a relief, in a way, because my friend’s family didn’t have to watch their loved one in pain anymore. They no longer had to witness him being subjected to that type of lifestyle, clinging onto the withering hope that his condition would improve. Since we were in a Catholic school, the entire class attended the funeral mass and sat in the back of the church out of respect for our classmate and his family.
I would say my parents laid the proper foundation for my brother and me to understand the concept of death, but we never got the chance to have that talk about what death is — what it actually means when somebody dies. Perhaps it’s easier that way, allowing kids to formulate their own conceptions of life and death.
Of course, there is no way to know for sure what happens when we die, but this doesn’t stop kids from being curious, from asking questions. It shouldn’t stop us from being curious either, nor should it stop us from trying to comprehend what death truly means — and through experiencing death, comprehending what it truly means to live.
I have a five-year-old cousin who has much more experience with death than I did when I was her age. But still, I don’t believe she genuinely understands it. (Do we genuinely understand anything at the age of five?) To my knowledge, this upcoming wake and funeral will be (at least) her second experience of the sort. She was present at our grandfather’s wake and funeral last year, even though she didn’t have a relationship with him. However, my cousin had a very close relationship with our grandmother, which makes this situation particularly delicate.
Does she feel sad? Does she know to feel sad? A five-year-old is going to ask questions about her grandmother, and yes — it’s important how we answer them.
Is it right to tell my cousin that Grandma fell asleep and is never going to wake up? Wouldn’t that make her afraid to fall asleep? We can’t tell her: “Everybody dies, and someday you’re going to die, too.” That would traumatize her, however true it may be.
Do we lie? Do we involve our religious beliefs and tell her that Grandma went up to heaven and is now an angel watching over her? Isn’t that just a way for people to avoid accepting death’s permanence?
How do we clarify that death is permanent? We can’t just tell a five-year-old she’s never going to see her grandmother again. Can we?
Do we make it a dialogue and say, “Haley, what do you want to know about Grandma?” Do we answer all of her questions candidly, even if it means responding “I don’t know”? Would she accept “I don’t know” as an answer and understand that sometimes there’s no way of knowing something for sure?
Or do we avoid the situation altogether? I know my family is good at that, so should this conversation wait until my cousin is older and more mature?
Maybe I’m asking the wrong questions here. Maybe instead of wondering how should we, I should be thinking how could we. If we don’t even know what happens when and after we die, how could we explain the concept of death to a child? What knowledge about death could we possibly have that makes us more qualified than a five-year-old to field existential questions?
What we know about death (pertaining to life as we know it) is limited to the fact that 1. it is inevitable and 2. it is permanent. All of the other details — the ones kids tend to ask about — get a bit fuzzy after that.
So, unless we want to explain how to organize a funeral or how to purchase a coffin or how to close bank accounts or how to write an obituary, maybe we should just stop trying to explain death to our children. Maybe we should just let them ask their own questions and form their own beliefs. And the way we do that is by simply answering honestly: “I don’t know.”
These are some great resources I found about this subject (obviously, every situation and every child is different, but it doesn’t make these any less useful):