Children can handle death when it’s normalised

It’s normal to die.  Death is all around us.  It’s the way nature does life.  The death of one is life giving for another.  Take a rainforest or the ocean.  These two great systems thrive on the cycling of nutrients and that means the living and dying of plants and animals. Unseen and for the most part unreported, but taking place everyday outside the gaze of the vast majority of human society.

As Rebecca Giggs points out in her book Fathoms: the world in the whale, we are fauna, we are embedded in nature – not separate, not apart – quite the opposite, in the midst of, a part of.  The sooner we understand this the better we will be able to get the stories that we tell ourselves grounded in the realities of life, which can be very different to the myths peddled by the death denialists.  There is no great out there where we go.  If we choose cremation then we go back into the atmosphere as vapour, and if we choose burial we go back into the earth.  One way or another we end up within this finite planets influence, within the larger universe.

It’s no surprise that when it comes to dealing with death, children get it – often much better than adults.  Back in the good old days, the adults of those times got it too.  Sadly over the years – mainly since the early to mid 1900s – many adults have adopted the ‘we’re going to live forever’ mantra, which has been compounded by the medicalisation of end-of-life care with drugs and technology to prolong life. This has left many people thinking that with sufficient intervention, there’s a fix for everything including getting old. A consequence of this putting off, has been not being prepared, for what should be expected.

The ABC has been covering the subject of dying and death across its various platforms, one of the latest being ABC Life, where Siobhan Hegarty has posted this story: How Play School’s Little Ted is helping parents and kids talk about death and grief, 

Key takeaways from Play School’s producers and early education experts:

  • Keep your language clear, don’t use euphemisms like “they passed away”
  • Talk about death before it happens in your family
  • Let your children lead the conversations, ask them what they think has happened, rather than bombarding them with information
  • Show your children it’s OK to be sad
  • Kids can’t sit with “big feelings” for too long, so plan a fun activity for after your talk
  • Keep memories alive — make a scrapbook about someone who died, visit their favourite place or cook a recipe they loved.

If ever there was a reason for adults coming to terms with end-of-life subjects it’s being able to be grown up about it for the children in our lives. This doesn’t just apply to parents, it also applies to grandparents, our wider circle of family and friends and beyond this the community.  For many of us, death literacy is not on our list of things to get our heads around.  We pay attention to television dramas, movies and sports and cars and pets, and … but death doesn’t rate, even though it’s in the nightly news with stories of murders and wars.  It’s all out of proportion, but it needn’t be.  We have it in our power to turn this around.

Let’s assume we can sit comfortably with talking openly and honestly about dying and death.  The next step might be to have at hand some good references that we can share. One of these might be: Beginnings and Endings. This explores the concepts of birth and death for preschool-aged children. It is available now on ABC iview, to give parents and carers an opportunity to watch the episode with their children. Watch it here.

Get the full story here: Teaching children about life and death

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