A friend’s mother died recently. Her six-year-old daughter had been very close to her grandmother, and she seems particularly shaken by her death. It wasn’t unexpected—aunty was old and had led a full, happy life. But the child seems unable to reconcile herself to the death and now seems to fear that her parents will follow suit. The other day, when the girl had to be taken to hospital after a sudden asthma attack—she suffers them at long intervals—she was trembling in fear and confided in her mother later that she had expected to die too. How does one explain the idea of death, its inevitability as also something not necessarily immediate, to such a small child?
The child is going through a phase where she has encountered death at close quarters for the first time. At such a time, just about everything happening around her will be “pinned” to that event for a while. It’s like there is suddenly a new lens through which life has to be viewed—the phenomenon of death and dying is this new lens. No doubt this is a traumatic time, but be assured that she is processing the startling and horribly final parting from her grandmother in ways that distress you, but are appropriate for her. Your or her parents’ job is to gently “un-pin” that event from current life, so that she does not think of death as something lying in wait right round the corner. How do you do that?
First, by letting her grieve fully for the grandmother and yet have a sense of continuity—perhaps put up a picture, add a small ritual (like doing namaste to the photograph every morning), perhaps the mother can wear some small piece of jewellery the grandmother used, or cook her favourite dish once in a while, etc. In this way, the distressing absence is softened, and yet the fact of her demise is firmly and gently reinforced. Such modern-day rituals can replace the “ritualistic” marking of death that took place in earlier times.
Give comfort: Help your child grieve for the loss of a loved one, like a grandparent.
The second “un-pinning” step would be to involve the child, subtly, in life-cyle-avowing activities such as nurturing a plant, a pet, going on nature walks, meeting other old people who she can relate to, etc. We adults are kind of prepared for death—what it is not to have someone around—a finality that comes from previous experiences of death. We also know what it is to “move on”—because we have experienced it. The child needs to go through the process of experiencing loss as well as experiencing rejuvenation in some form—this is where you can help her along.
Coming to terms with death can be a lifelong process, but it does not have to be a traumatic one. Before embarking on an explanation or a reassuring talk with our children about death, we need to examine our own feelings and beliefs so that we can talk to them as naturally and as soothingly as possible. Young children expect parents to be all-knowing, even about death. While not all our answers may be completely comforting, we can share what we truly believe. Where we have doubts, an honest, “I just don’t know the answer...I wonder too,” may be a more comforting response than an explanation which we don’t really believe ourselves.
Gouri Dange is the author of The ABCs of Parenting.
Send Gouri your queries at firstname.lastname@example.org