There are conversations that parents fear having with their children. Topics that are either awkward to explain (sex) or difficult to explain in a way that children can comprehend and not be frightened by (death). Plenty has been written about how best to talk to children about death. Thankfully I’ve not yet had to address it close to home, with the exception of a couple of sickly pet fish. But is it possible to avoid touching upon the subject when it is so hard not to be exposed to it every day?
Last week, whilst my 5-year-old jumped on top of me I told her “to be careful or she’d squash me to death”. When she didn’t stop, I made a “bleurr” sound, closed my eyes, opened my mouth and let my tongue loll out. My fatal mistake was to lie too still. My daughter burst into tears – she thought I had died. I was wracked with guilt, although I must admit I was a little pleased that she was actually bothered. That said, I won’t be repeating my clearly Oscar-worthy performance. My little girl is certainly under no illusion what death means.
Last night, she told me that she’d heard her tummy rumble and was worried that she was so hungry her heart would stop. (A banana put paid to this dramatic outcome.) However, she then quietly asked me about the lady on the radio who had starved her child to death. She was talking about the awful death of 4-year-old Hamzah Khan. I recalled how my daughter would have heard this story over and over on the car radio. I also recalled how I had each time tried to sing over it and distract her so that she wouldn’t listen to what was being said. It is astonishing how much a child can absorb only to serve it up later when you least expect it.
It is hard to avoid death when the headlines are so full of it. Perhaps I should act more quickly in future and simply switch off the radio. Then again, it could be worse for a child to catch just a hint of something. That tiny seed of something not understood (or misunderstood) may grow into an overwhelming worry if dwelled upon alone. There’s no doubt that questioning death is an important part of growing up. It’s vital to help children to complete the jigsaw that is the world around them. It teaches them about consequences and empathy and that it is normal to feel upset and worried. Sadly, it also teaches them that not everyone in the world is good.
Fortunately, the workings of a child’s mind can make you look on the brighter side of life, even when considering death. Speculating on how people get to ‘heaven’, my daughter decided that it might be more than simply “floating out of a hole, invisible, in the middle of the night”. She suggested that everyone boards their own “death aeroplane” with a big bed in it which then flies you to heaven. I imagine they wouldn’t need to worry about metal cutlery on a flight like that. No need for a baggage allowance either, unless you count any unresolved chips on your shoulder. I just hope that when I go it’s not a destination served only by budget airlines. I’d like my last class to be first class.