Annie Keeling: On death and living
“I will love the light for it shows me the way;
yet I will love the darkness for it shows me the stars.
I will welcome happiness for it enlarges my heart;
yet I will endure sadness for it opens my soul.”
— Og Mandino
What happens when your child realizes that the squirrel by the side of the road is not “sleeping?” Or that when people talk about how Grandma “passed away,” they mean that she is not ever coming back?
While death is often one of those taboo topics in our culture, children have ways of demanding that we address it.
When my son was 2, our dog, Ziggy, died. We filled a shadow box with photos, her dog tag, a poem, a rawhide and a small container of her ashes. Around the age of 3, he often stared at the shadow box until he burst into tears. He sometime talked about Ziggy as he lay in bed at night. He cried, rocked and even wailed. It was as if he needed to experiment with the deep sensation of grief.
When I was growing up, we had a book called “The Littlest Angel,” about a boy who had gone to heaven. What I remember most about this story is that if I felt down or sad about something, I would read the book and cry and cry. It gave me a safe place to release these emotions.
TALKING ABOUT DEATH
When children reach the ages of 3 or 4, they often come to what I call The Ledge. This is a precipice of growth — where the child has many questions and curiosities around more adult topics like death. The child begins to have access to more nuanced emotions as well. At this same time that they become more aware of mortality, they may also develop a fear of the dark or other new behaviors.
How to talk to children about death? There is no right answer. Some parents have a belief system or faith that they share with their children. Other parents want to include details regarding death in the hopes that their child will be able to develop their own informed thoughts and opinions. Perhaps this might be a swing away from not being told much by their parents. Others use the life cycle of nature to describe death.
It’s important to consider the child’s development. There are age-appropriate ways to talk to kids so that they are not overwhelmed or frightened. Two children’s books about death can be helpful: “Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children,” by Bryan Mellonie, or “The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story of Life for All Ages,” by Leo Buscaglia.
Sometimes children get stuck in feelings, thoughts, or difficult images around death. Parents and caregivers can model positive coping and help a child learn healthy ways to express feelings. This includes accepting all feelings (even tough ones like anger), reading stories about similar emotions, drawing out feelings, or bringing the event and emotions into the child’s play. It’s also important to recognize when a child is struggling and may need more help.
As children grow, the seriousness of life and traumatic events comes more into their awareness. Whether or not the parent discusses this, the child will pick up a lot from the surrounding culture. There are many times that circumstances are beyond our adult control.
SHOCKING & TRAGIC LOSS
One of these occurred recently with the shocking and tragic loss of two local teens during spring break. One of the boys was my son’s good friend. A previous hope I had for my son was that he would have continued experiences with death that made more sense until he was older, like the loss of a pet or a grandparent living out a full life to old age. But this loss of the teens was so sudden — so unexpected. It was made even more tragic and senseless by the information that a young drunk driver had caused the deaths.
We grappled with complicated emotions of shock, anger, disbelief, helplessness and sadness. We stayed home and shared tears and hugs, quiet conversations of remembrance, numb motions of everyday activities like cooking — even though none of us were hungry — and distractions like television, social media or video games.
And then we reached out. We contacted others who knew our good friend. My son had friends stay for sleepovers. One of them was a mutual friend from middle school and the three of them had experienced much together. We lit a candle and took turns sharing stories of our friend.
Remembering him was key. We looked at photos. We all shared something we wished that we could say to him. We spoke of what we appreciated about him. I talked of my belief that great challenges grow our soul. We laughed and cried and hugged. Instead of focusing on our deep suffering, we brought love, joy, and gratitude to the evening.
Honoring our friend honored each one of us. A deep emotional bond brought us closer. We practiced gratitude even in the midst of the intensity of sadness and grief.
It was messy and difficult and imperfect — and so very human. Like life. Like death.
Annie Keeling, MFA, of Grass Valley provides parent coaching and teaches parenting classes at The Nest. Connect with Keeling at email@example.com or 530-210-1100.
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