Children are brought up on a diet of violence, destruction and death in the media – gruesome and horrific news stories splashed across the front page and terrifyingly realistic murder scenes in films. By the time they reach adulthood, most children are quite familiar with images of violent death, but know little or nothing of natural death. As with all natural rites of passage, death has the potential to be a profound and beautiful experience, for adults and children alike. Most of us have shady memories of the death of loved ones when we were young, whispered conversations deemed ‘not suitable for children’, muffled sobs and closed hospital doors. When we hide the reality of death from them, we deny our children a very real and very vital stage in life’s cycle.
Death is not always pretty, particularly when it is preceded by a long and difficult illness, yet children are often our sagest teachers in these situations. When we feel overwhelmed by a long and drawn-out death, children have the ability to diffuse a situation, to help us laugh through our tears. Children who actively participate in the caring and tending for a dying loved one are able to process their feelings of grief more effectively. Anyone who remembers the frustration of being kept in the dark about death as a child will recognise that they don’t want to repeat these patterns for their own children. Often the argument goes that children are too young and innocent to understand death, but I think this says more about our attitudes than our children’s.
Children are born with two natural fears, one of falling and one of loud noises. Fear of death is passed on from fearful adults. Of course death is frightening – we all battle with the concept of the unknown; separation, pain, suffering, unfinished business and leaving loved ones behind. With the breakdown of organised religion in this country we have lost the sense of death as a transition to another realm. At the same time, we can effectively ‘put off’ death for longer and longer with medication and machines. We are a long way from accepting death gracefully. Our culture reveres youth, conceals the elderly and ill in institutions and portrays death as an untimely intruder. In other cultures, where death is more commonplace and is talked about frequently and often humorously, children are exposed to the reality of death with no apparent trauma. In many cultures, expressing all the emotions of grief in public is an accepted part of social ritual and is seen as a cathartic process.
Anyone who has witnessed the death of a loved one knows how difficult it can be. We are gradually re-learning a natural birth movement and demanding more involved and individual births for our babies, in the safety and comfort of our own homes or birthing centres. It is time to open our eyes to a natural death movement. Those who are terminally ill often spend their final days in a hospital setting with others coming to the end of life, subjected to a battery of tests and interventions to prolong what little life is left and cared for by a number of busy professionals. The family is relieved by the hustle and bustle, the sense of something ‘being done’, because it shields us from reality. Quite often, the dying person is not consulted about what they want, the constant checking of machines and data preventing them from having the deep and meaningful conversations or thoughts they might like.
Those who have nursed a dying relative at home know how different this can be. It is a time for reflection, for peace and soft lighting, for laughter and reminiscing, for tears and kisses and private conversations. It is a time to just be, to allow the patient to talk if they want to or slip into sleep. Hospices have been set up to promote this kind of death, a loving, caring environment in which a family can have active involvement. When carers are overwhelmed with the difficulty or burden of their duties, a hospice is safe respite. Staff are trained to tend and care for the families as well as the patients, and allow them freedom of expression.
Unfortunately, many of our hospitals are a long way from this kind of gentle approach, with evidence suggesting that death education is still a neglected area of postgraduate training for healthcare professionals. When death is sudden, patients are rushed to hospital and into a highly tense and traumatic situation. This kind of speed and knowledge has saved countless lives and medical science is remarkable, but it is important to really listen to the patient and their needs, to let them know clearly what is happening and to support them calmly throughout.
Death in History and what we can learn from it
In traditional history, death was women’s domain. Women were the unlicensed doctors and anatomists of western history. For centuries, they practised medicine without degrees. Barred from books and lectures, they passed their experience on from neighbour to neighbour and from mother to daughter. In a community, women used their skills as nurses, counsellors and midwives. They were pharmacists, cultivating healing herbs and exchanging the secrets of their uses. They were known as ‘wise women’ by the people, witches and charlatans by the authorities.
For a long time in our history, women were the primary medical care-givers of the poor and working classes who could not afford to pay the graduates of medical school. Up until the turn of the last century, there was a group of recognised women in the community who took pride in their duty of ‘laying out’ the dead. They would carefully wash the body, tie up the jaw, wrap the corpse in a white sheet and lay it on a board made by the village joiner, who would also make the coffin. One woman, known as the ‘bidder’ would go from house to house in the community, summoning the families to the funeral. Women even acted as coffin bearers, and behind the bearers in the funeral procession came local women who would later serve specially baked breads and other food. They would provide sweet biscuits and port to mourners throughout. By the late 1970s, mourning customs, with death as a communal event, had largely disappeared in this country, being replaced by paid professionalism. Now funeral directors prepare the body and arrange the teas.
What relevance do these customs have now?
The idea of a network of support and care may appeal to many. Preparing a funeral is often an impersonal and harrowing experience for the bereaved, with decisions being made for them. Hours spent covertly discussing prices and arrangements in a dark funeral parlour can often feel an alien experience. Sometimes after the funeral, we wish that we had been able to do more and be involved in something so personal.
Getting friends and neighbours involved can reinstate a sense of community and provide a comforting framework within which to grieve. Asking for assistance helps to lift the burden of responsibility at a difficult time. Allocating jobs that need to be dealt with means that everyone can work together with a common goal, and the laughter and tears elicited as a funeral meal is lovingly prepared or a coffin lavishly decorated provides solace, comfort and unity. Though many balk at the thought, preparing the dead for burial can be very cathartic, and is an affirming way to come to terms with death.
We are one of the only cultures that has no real death ritual which involves the dead body. Caring and tending for a dying relative need not end at death and it seems strange that we hand over this very personal ritual to professionals. How can we help our kids to deal with death? Confronting our own fears is the first step to being able to talk openly with our children about death. Creating a sense of the history of your family is a good place to start. Looking through family photos, composing a family tree, talking about dead or elderly relatives and the lives they have led, talking about new arrivals in the family and the old people they might become, all of these generate a sense of family history that makes the subject of death more understandable.
The cycles of nature
Nurturing a deep respect for nature and the cycles of life in our children enables them to witness death and rebirth firsthand. Death can be gentle – a butterfly settling down to die at sunset, or cruel – a lioness killing her unrecognised young. Nature is constantly dying and being born again. All religions have used this motif as their central ‘story’, because it resonates on such a deep human level. Watching the decomposition of an animal or plant, preferably in your own garden or park helps a child to understand that this is what happens to all natural matter, like our bodies. We go back to feed the earth to enable things to grow again. If we can get over our own inherent cultural squeamishness of this fact, this is a very powerful and sacred idea by which to understand our mortality. We come from the earth, we go back to the earth.
Acknowledge the intuitive child
When a relative is dying, before soldiering headlong into a convoluted explanation to a child, ask them what they know and feel already. You may be very surprised, for children can be exceptionally intuitive. All children are unknowingly (in that they don’t have the dialogue to verbalise it) attuned to the energy fields of others, so may be able to see or sense a change in the energy around a dying person. They are very respectful of this change. It is worth remembering that it was not so long ago that they made their own journey from the ‘unknown’ at birth, so they do not have an intrinsic fear of this process of coming and going.
When visiting a dying person, it is usually the child in the group who will openly ask about death, while everyone else is still fussing over the flowers or commenting on the weather. Wise children indeed, for this kind of frank honesty opens the door to better communication for everyone. Don’t let this opportunity for honesty on your part pass you by.
Elizabeth Kubler Ross, author of many enlightening books about death and dying, records the five stages a patient goes through on hearing of their terminal illness. One of these is denial, yet we have to be aware that sometimes the denial is not on the part of the patient but on the part of the visiting family and the patient is maintaining a silence to protect the feelings of others. Being able to vocalise and share all the thoughts and feelings that go through our minds in those final days promotes a closeness and solidarity that is lacking if we hide behind our fears.
Expression through art
With death that is harrowing, terrifying or traumatic, there are ways in which we can help children process their grief. Jungian analyst Susan Bach worked for many years with terminally ill children and their families, inviting the children to explore their emotions through art. Where children don’t have the vocabulary to communicate their emotions, drawing and painting offers them a very real avenue of expression. This idea is used by child psychologists and police working with traumatised children. It creates a window through which an adult and a child can work together to resolve fears and form understanding. If you fear that your child has been adversely affected by death, or has fears around dying, instead of probing them with questions, let them experience the freedom of drawing out their unconscious.
Helping the dead ‘live on’
One of the questions we find the hardest to answer, and one of the most difficult for a child to get their head around, is where do people go when they die. Television and film representations of the dead as zombies or ghostly forces, can mean a child has a sense of the dead as malicious or something to be feared. It is best to avoid this kind of media altogether if possible, but certainly around the time of a death. With the breakdown in organised religion in this country, many parents are unsure when talking about an afterlife. It is okay to admit that you don’t know. Some of us may believe in the souls of the departed carrying on after they are dead. Even if this idea doesn’t sit comfortably with you, it is very valuable for a child to remember and affirm all the things that made the dead person special.
As a family, you might want to create a big, colourful brain-storm of the qualities and skills that you admired most in the deceased. Each of you can choose a quality or skill that you would like to help ‘live on’, and set about putting this into practise. Learning to make trifle like granny used to, or loving and caring for animals like a friend used to, means that children have a practical way in which to remember their loved ones. This memory will carry meaning and purpose into adulthood.
Grief and how we deal with it
Probably the most useful thing we can bring to our children’s understanding and growth is our own response to death. At a time of change, they will watch those they respect and love and will often mirror our responses. The parent who grieves furtively or not at all sets a tone that grief is to be denied or hidden. This is a hard habit to break in adulthood, and often sets a precedent by which a child will cope with difficult situations in life. In our culture, we are in the habit of portraying grief and crying as weak and negative. In fact, it is a strengthening practise – by owning our feelings and releasing them, we protect ourselves from the ill health that repressed emotion can cause. So if you feel like crying, cry, and don’t be afraid to show your child how real your emotional response is. Your child does not need to be ‘protected’ from emotion. Big, open displays of grief are healthier than constrained, hidden pain that leaks into the rest of their childhood.
Grieving together means that you grow together and reach a deeper understanding of each other as individuals. Death has many faces in the cultures of the world, both feared and revered. Allowing this natural cycle into our consciousness, accepting the reality of our mortality and celebrating the life we share on this earth – in so doing, we are weaving a positive and enhancing web of understanding for our children to inherit.
Cultural perspectives and what they teach us
Other cultures can teach us a lot about death. One of the reasons the education system has opted out of teaching ‘death education’ in schools is because of the varied mix of religions and cultural identities in this country. There is no one way to approach death, but if we open our eyes and ears there is plenty of food for thought.
Hindu religions – the dying and dead are cared for by their own kin. They are not passive observers, but active participants and young children are included in all preparations. The funeral ceremony lasts for twelve days, which can be a financial struggle for poorer families. Prayers are said, songs are sung and readings are made from holy books. Friends join in and food is provided. The body is anointed, garlanded with flowers and carried in a procession to be cremated at the burning ghat, where the pyre is ignited by the eldest son. Participants are struck by the real sensations, of burning heat and acrid smoke and are able to free all their emotions.
Buddhist religions – Buddhism has a close affinity with death, believing in the neverending cycle of life. The idea that nothing lasts and that there is a flux between dark and light, birth and death, loss and gain, Yin and Yang, is a powerful and helpful concept. Following bereavement, the family members are given much social support by neighbours and extended family.
Judaism – The Jewish have an annual holiday Yizkor, when the congregation recalls their dead in a memorial service and lights candles. They also have a tradition of making ‘ethical wills’ – documents (or videos, recordings etc.) in which the person who is dying speaks of their wishes, hopes, values and instructions to family and friends. The ethical will is designed to pass on wisdom, spiritual wealth and inspiration to the next generation.
Humanist – Modern Humanism adopts no belief in God or an afterlife, believing that human beings have sole responsibility for bettering or fulfilling their life in this world. People live on in the minds of those who survive them. Humanist funerals celebrate a life lived.