Teaching Children the Art of Death
Pregnant with my first son, sitting at the bedside of my terminally ill uncle, I felt sad irony pulling at me. There were jubilant kicks within my womb, sequences of rhythmic hiccups from my unborn son, and a wrenching, labored breathing from the bed. Impending birth sat side by side with impending death. I was the keeper and the witness.
I held the hand of my uncle as he quietly ended his journey on earth. There is nothing to ever compare to a moment like that. But there are things we can do to prepare ourselves and our children for the darkness of dying. We can bring light to this season. There is an art to death, shown in the stories of our history. It is in our customs and rituals, and in how we teach our children to embrace the inevitable.
How we respond to death is the art. It is the church ladies and their decadent desserts, served to the mourners. It is in the classic “hot-dish” that my dad’s hometown church served after every funeral. It is in the tables of keepsakes we arrange, filled with photographic montages of the lives of the ones we just lost. The art is how we carefully select flowers, hymns, and prayers. This art is not for adults only. Children need to be present in mourning so that the realities of death do not frighten them – the art of death becomes a comfort to them.
Do not fear funerals. So often I hear parents say they don’t want to bring their children to funerals because their kids are too young, will be too sad, or will perhaps not behave in a mourning-acceptable way. Stop keeping them from funerals. Help them navigate these rituals. Not only have my children attended these events with me, but as teenagers they now volunteer at church to help during funerals – often not knowing who has died, but knowing that a family is grieving and their small service can help the process.
Be real. Avoid terms like sleeping, going away, and other terms that can confuse young children. Children can be frightened of sleeping or of others leaving when death is compared to these events. Be real with your faith, too. I firmly believe that the reality of death is not as frightening for my children because they have faith – that real and honest belief that this life is not all. It is not the end.
Treat the ill as the living – not the dying. My dear children have lost more loved ones than sometimes seems fair. But when the opportunity has been present – during times of illness or late in life – we seize the moments to share time, emotions, and laughter with those loved ones. We let our kids know the reality of the situation, but we help them focus on the living.
Be OK with tears and confusion. Cry in front of and with your children. Let them cry, ask questions, or even seem unaffected. They process in their own time and in their own way – but only if you’re honest with them and let them move through it. You don’t have to have all of the answers.
Have funeral pants. When my oldest was about 13 she was cleaning her closet as fall ended and the start of school neared. I called to her from the hallway – Be sure to let me know if there is anything in particular you need before we go shopping! Her relaxed reply met me at the corner – Well, I have enough funeral pants but I need a new coat.
Just like the changing seasons from summer to fall, and from carefree play to school studies, our wardrobes reflect the seasons of life. We have those date-night dresses, interview jackets, lazy Saturday yoga pants, and backyard BBQ capris. And we have funeral pants. Our go-to outfits for saying fare-thee-well and I’m going to miss her, too. For all the living we do, death is inevitably a part of our living. Get your kids some funeral pants.