From The Record, October 6, 2017 –Shanna Bernier
Life is filled with difficult conversations we must have with our children. With all the terrible things we hear on the news—from natural disasters to mass murders—being honest about the dark stuff can be really heavy. How do we share truth with them, and answer curious questions while balancing their need to remain pure and un-traumatized? Sometimes we can laugh it off, buck up, and share the difficult truths. Other times we might be paralyzed with fear of saying the wrong thing. One of the tricky subjects we face with our kids, sooner or later, is death. Death is a natural and inevitable part of life. It may be sooner rather than later that a child has to face this complex truth. Somewhere between a squished bug, a flushed goldfish, or any number of Disney Classics, your little one will be introduced to death.
My pre-schooler attended her first funerals during the 3rd year of her life. She had a number of logical and predictable questions which I felt mostly prepared to answer. The second funeral we went to as a family for a well-known parishioner from our church community was open casket. This experience was transformative for Bea as she had an unexpectedly direct visual experience with death. For weeks after the service she talked about it, and it wove into the fabric of her play. The statement which repeated itself over and over was, “When you are old and sick you die and lose your legs”. We were amused more than concerned, but it took us a long time to understand the reason why she was saying this. The casket hid the legs, and because she couldn’t see them, she thought they were gone. Bea developed her own understanding, based on observation, that one enters the afterlife legless.
Talking about death is a complex and personal matter. The way you choose to describe things would be different for different families with different faith backgrounds. What I think is important is honesty and using clear language. A lot of the ways we choose to talk about death in our culture use euphemisms which can be confusing to little kids. If you talk about Grampa as being “asleep” or “gone to a better place” it can be tricky for a literal-brained child to process. As with every hard conversation we can have with kids, there is lots of wisdom by those who have lived it already, and consequently there are many great books to help open the door on this topic in a gentle and age-appropriate manner. Different situations might warrant a different type of book. The death of a beloved pet or a cherished Grandparent will be different to talk about than a miscarriage or infant death. None of these situations are easy breezy, and it is certainly challenging to think about when you might be feeling sad or grieving a loss yourself.
One of the first books I encountered which delves into this topic in a beautiful and simple way is called “Lifetimes: A Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children” by Bryan Mellonie. Available in the children’s section of the Lennoxville Library, this book aims to normalize the life cycle of all living creatures on earth, including people, without over complicating matters. It is written in clear and simple language and has beautiful illustrations. It is the kind of book which some kids might find a bit boring, as it repeats the same basic text with different types of creature experiencing their natural life-cycle. When I read it with my child, we had not experienced a loss. I took it out of the library as a curiosity rather than a tool, but many reviews online from parents and teachers claim is was vital in opening up a conversation with kids after experiencing a loss.
I am a big fan of the author and illustrator Todd Parr. His wildly colourful books are written on a number of great topics, ranging from family diversity, expressing our feelings, and accepting difference. His book about dealing with death and loss is called “The Goodbye Book” This reflective story shows a fish dealing with all the feelings and events after saying goodbye to another fish. It is a very simple and direct text, with a lot of open-ended conversations built in.
As much as we want to protect our kids from the scary and sad parts of life, they are woven into the rich fabric of our collective stories. The best we can aim to do is help our kids navigate the hard things so that they grow and learn and emerge stronger. And a good snuggle on the couch with storybook will only help on that journey.
Saturday morning at the Amédée-Beaudoin Center in Lennoxville there will be a play put on in French for children aged 5 to 11. Entitled “Réinventer la Bête,” this interactive work is designed to foster literacy and a love of reading. If your children are able to understand French, drop by for an interesting time. It will start at 9:30 and finish around 11:00. Admission is free but spaces are limited so please call the library at 819-562-4949 to confirm your presence.