A Jason manford comment made me think recently. (I know, it’s surprising.)
The quote was a version of the following: That when an adult asks what he thinks happens after death he says he doesn’t know but probably nothing. When a kid asks the same, he can’t help but talk about heaven and angels and fluffy clouds.
And I was so grateful to have a faith. Not because I think I’m better than anyone else, or that my answer has more validity than yours, but because I believe in absolute honesty with my son. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of things he doesn’t need to know. But if you listen to their questions carefully, most children want an answer you can give in an age appropriate way. When a three year old asks where babies come from, the answer ‘Mummy’s tummy’ will normally suffice. When they point to a man sleeping rough on the street and ask why he’s asleep on the floor, your child probably won’t question you further if you tell them he doesn’t have a house. And if they do question further? Well then that’s ok too. I’m comfortable to keep giving information layer by layer until their curiosity is satisfied. I see it as a privilege actually.
But I wouldn’t know how to begin to look a child in the eyes and tell them that there is nothing else but this world. To tell them that grandpa has been buried in the ground and that’s it. If that’s really what I believed, that this world is all we have, that our actions are meaningless outside of the eighty or so years on earth we are given, I would not only be at a loss for answers to my children, but I think I’d find it pretty hard to get out of bed myself.
Why do good things happen to bad people? Why does tragedy strike the most worthy of us? Why do some people have to live with illness, or poverty, or heartbreak? The answer that the world is random, that things just occur for no discernible reason is just not good enough, even for me, let alone for an inquisitive child whose favourite word is why.
But truthfully, if I COULD look myself in the mirror and accept those facts as random and meaningless, I would try and explain those beliefs to my children too. We want to protect our kids from painful truths, so we try and sugarcoat things. I get that. But in my world, where I’m not even that comfortable with the tooth fairy, (unless everyone concerned is very clear it’s a game, and it’s all done with lots of heavy winking and tones of jest to make that really evident) I’m not interested in putting an icing glaze on the big issues.
I saw a forum conversation recently about how to explain death to a 3 year old. The answers were really helpful to the original poster, but I read the entire thread in my usual judgemental way, and was left unsettled when I finished. “We told our son that grandpa lives on the moon.” “We told our daughter that auntie Beth is a star now, and then we chose a star for them to look out for so they could wave at her.” “We told our kids that their great grandma moved to Australia, which is really far away so we won’t be able to see her any more. After all, why upset them?” “Our twins were only just three, so we just told them that grandma was feeling too poorly to see them – after a while they stopped asking.”
I don’t doubt that these answers cause less upset in the short term, and maybe by the time they realise you are lying to them, (because that’s what you’re doing, it’s not sugarcoating, it’s lying) the immediate pain of the persons passing is over, or they can deal with it in a more mature way, but what of your relationship with your kids? Their trust in you to be able to face the hard situations with them as well as the straightforward or enjoyable? It seems to me that when the real answers come out, all your kids have learned is that death and dying is something to be so afraid of that it’s better to make up a story than talk about the truth.
For me, death doesn’t need a sense of magic or fantasy. And the truth is, it’s a matter of faith pure and simple. At some point, you have obviously come to your own convictions about what happens after you die, so why not have the strength to share these with your child? I feel lucky to believe in heaven, but I would still start this important conversation with the disclaimer that “no one knows for certain what happens when a person dies but I believe…” As long as your child leaves the conversation knowing that the person who is gone isn’t in pain, isn’t sad, and isn’t scared, so they don’t have to be either, what are you worried about?
The meaning of death and dying, along with illness, sex, and any number of other words, are our responsibility to teach. They are brand new concepts to our children. They aren’t inherently scary words to be afraid of. They are whatever we want them to be. Do we want them to be a lie? Surely it’s our job to teach not only the meanings of the words, but also the emotional responses to these facts of life, in a clear and open way without relying on the quick fix of deception.
That’s how I feel today anyway. Ask me again when my boy loses his first tooth and I don wings and a sparkly pen to creep into his bedroom and retrieve it.