Monday, June 27, 2011

Toddler Death Panels

A few months ago the girls and I were in the car listening to the soundtrack of The Princess and the Frog.  At one pivotal point Dr. John sings: 

Hey partner, don't be shy
Come on down here and give us a try
You wanna do some livin' before you die
Do it down in New Orleans.
Ten second later my four-year-old daughter asks; "Mommy, why do people die?" just as I was taking a sip from my travel coffee-mug.  After my coughing spasm subsided, I took a few minutes to collect my thoughts.  What should I explain?  Old age?  Illness?  Accidents?  I knew that this was an important opportunity to be thoughtful and honest, but I didn't want to create nightmares.
The closest Elana has gotten to death was holding this tranquilized parrot at Jungle Island.
When I was her age I was terrified of death.  At night I would lie awake underneath my Strawberry Shortcake comforter, too afraid to fall asleep.  Anxiety that one day I would die, and more likely my mom would die, overwhelmed me.  I understood that there was nothing I could do to prevent this and the thought of total oblivion, the end of everything, petrified me.  Nothing my parents said to comfort me worked.  Heaven seemed too easy an answer and although reincarnation was reassuring, I wasn't sure about the logistics.  This fear lasted months and the thought of death still haunts me.  Needless to say, I was carefully choosing my words with Elana.

"Well, sometimes, when someone gets very, very old, older that mommies and older than grandmas and grandpas, they die."
"Oh, so, you and Daddy aren't going to die."
"That's right."

Ok, I lied.  I took the easy route.  But, I needed time to rethink my strategy. 

Children are aware of death.  They see dead bugs, animals, characters in TV shows and movies.  They (especially boys) pretend that their small hand is a gun and shout "Bang, I killed you!"  They play games like "doctor" and "you're dead", all the while keeping their keen ears open to all words spoken in hushed tones.

Experts agree that when this topic is brought up it should be discussed.  Avoidance may tell the children that the subject is dangerous and too scary for even Mommy and Daddy to discuss.  Parents should be truthful, but careful with the words they use to describe death.  Obviously I failed this test of parenting skills.

So what does a parent do when her four-year-old confronts her with a subject that is uncomfortable for even an adult to discuss?  According to Hospice (Talking to Children About Death), an organization dedicated to helping patients and families cope with death, parents should:
  • try to be sensitive to their desire to communicate when they’re ready
  • try not to put up barriers that may inhibit their attempts to communicate
  • offer honest explanations when children are upset
  • listen to and accept feelings
  • not put off questions by telling children they are too young
  • try to find brief and simple answers that are appropriate to their questions; answers that children can understand and that do not overwhelm with too many words.  
Parents should also feel comfortable not having all the answers.  There will be questions children ask, such as "Where do we go after death?" and "Where are Max and Ruby's parents?" that we may not be explain.  It's OK to say "I don't know."

What Not to Say
While it is imperative to have an open conversation, there are some common phrases parents use to describe death that should be avoided.
  • "Grandpa went to sleep."  Toddler translation: If Grandpa went to sleep and never woke up, then maybe I will too.  (Say goodbye to your easy bedtime routine.)
  • "Aunt Sally went away."  Toddler translation: Maybe Mommy won't come back the next time she goes to work. (Hello separation anxiety!)
  • "Only old people die." Toddler translation: Nobody younger than that very old man at the coffee shop can ever die.  (Evidently, this is what my child thinks.)
  • "She got sick and died."  Toddler translation: If I get the flu, will I die?  (No more peaceful well-toddler check-ups.)
When describing why someone died, parents should be carefully honest.  "Grandpa was really old and his body was exhausted," or "Aunt Sally had a disease that her body couldn't make better."
Books on Death
Literature is often a powerful tool to use to start difficult conversations with children.  Lucky for me, there is an abundance of children's books that deal with death.   Almost all of these stories center around the death of a pet, but to a child, this loss may be as profound as any.

Goodbye Mousie, by Robie H. Harris.
This is a wonderful book to explore a child's first interaction with death.  Follow a little boy as he wakes up to tickle his pet's tummy only to find that Mousie does not respond. 

Lifetimes, by Bryan Melloni and Robert Ingpen.
This book sensitively explains the cycle of life, and that everything that is born must die. 

When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death, by Laurie Krasny Brown. 
From the author of the riveting tale, Dinosaurs Divorce, this book simply, yet comprehensively, explains death to the preschool age.

Hachiko: The True Story of a Loyal Dog, by Pamela S. Turner.
This story is based on the famous Japanese legend of Hachiko, a dog that loyally greeted his master at the train station everyday as he returned from work.  Although the story is not focused around the passing of the owner, it is a gentle and beautiful tale that can help begin a discussion about death.

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