One of the motherhood related dilemmas I have been grappling with recently is how to approach the concept of loss and death with my 3-year-old son. This is not something he has had to deal with yet, but I believe it is never too early to start preparing our children for any sort of adversity or suffering they may experience in life. Dealing with the loss and death of a loved one is life-changing for even us adults, so we can only imagine the effect of the same on our young ones.
The inescapable fact that we will all die one day is terrifying. Processing that a loved one has passed away or is in pain and suffering and there is not much time left, is extremely heart-breaking and difficult. It sometimes feels like the strings that are tugging at your heart are being weighed down with a big rock. Understanding loss and death is an art; I don’t fully understand it yet and I am sure most people don’t. We may never understand. However, a child’s capacity to understand death and dying is obviously limited and varies according to the age and so will our approach.
At the age of 3, a child’s view of the world is pure and simple. It is unembellished. Honesty is key; that has been and will always be my policy when it comes to discussions with my boys. Our children learn from the examples that are set for them and if we expect them to be transparent and open, we should exhibit those qualities as well. The first thought that enters my mind when I know I have a challenging subject to discuss with my son is, “He maybe too young to understand.” Well, it’s incredible how aware and astute 3-year-olds can be these days! Anything when explained in basic terms and rationally to our children will make sense and eventually sink into their heads. We don’t have all the answers, but I have learned it is critical to establish that sense of comfort and openness with my elder son (my younger one is only 6 months old). What we need to remember is to tell them there is no right or wrong way to feel.
Explaining and getting them to understand that all living things die sooner or later takes some skill; the key is in the way we speak. We need to somehow help them differentiate when someone dies owing to an illness and if someone suddenly dies in an accident. Even after explaining this, kids will continue to ask where a loved one is because it is hard for them to grasp the concept of someone not coming back. They will only be able to grasp the finality of death when they are a little older. This can be the most frustrating experience for parents, but it is important for us to reiterate it as much as possible. One thing that most parents don’t believe in doing is showing their child the actual body, preventing them from any trauma from not seeing their loved one for an extended period. However, showing them the body creates a sense of closure.
Statements like “he has gone away for some time” or “she has gone to sleep” gives your child the impression that the person is expected to come back or wake up. What happens when your child then asks you when he will be back? At the time, we may think that being gentle and indirect will soften the blow and make more time to process the situation. That is not the case. What our children expect from us is information “as is.” Telling them, “She is with God now” or “He is now in heaven” is more of an appropriate explanation. Chances are they will also ask us who God is and what heaven is. They also need to see us grieve so that they know it is ok for them to grieve in their own way as well.
I recently asked a good friend of mine how her son was so independent. She told me that she has always spoken and explained things to him like an adult. Not treated him as an adult, but spoken to him like one. This attitude is one that I hope to be able to imitate with my own children. Nothing is easy when raising children. You wonder whether each and everything you do and say is right or not, but the reality is that there is no right or wrong. What is right and works for you may be completely wrong for someone else. Introducing loss, death or dying is one of the hardest things a parent will ever have to do and is better sooner than later. The way we decide to explain it to them will make an impact on the way they see their world and on their imaginations. It is understandable that we as parents want to protect our children from the idea of dying, but death is a natural part of life. Isn’t it better to protect them by making them fully aware of what death truly means, rather than shielding them from something that will help shape them as individuals?