Talking About Death with Children
And you explain a crucifixion to a preschooler how?
As Easter approaches, I’ve been wrestling with how to explain it to my young son.
I hate to dwell solely on the secular (and let’s be honest, the rather insipid) Easter bunny aspect. But the reality is that Easter is a holiday with death – a rather violent death – at its center.
And my son is barely 3 years old. This is the kid I don’t even allow to have toy guns. The one I send to time out for bonking his friend over the head with a plastic toy on the playground. How on earth do I explain the fact that we’re about to celebrate a holiday that involves death? And not just death but a rather gory incident of capital punishment?
I danced around the issue for awhile. I figured, if I don’t bring it up, and he doesn’t ask about it, I won’t have to talk about it. Ah, denial. It can be such a useful parenting tool.
But as it turns out, that might not be such a bad strategy, at least while my son is still so young. I consulted with Martha Bess DeWitt, director of Christian education at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee. She reassured me that it’s fine to just put off talking about the crucifixion for another year or so.
Instead, I can explain that Christians celebrate Easter by celebrating the eternal presence of Jesus. That shouldn’t be too hard. William gets Jesus; he was all about the little Fisher-Price plastic nativity set at Christmas. So, that shouldn’t be too hard. Phew.
However, I wondered, does that also give me a pass on talking about death and dying with my young son?
The short answer to that question is it depends.
“For most children, wait until they begin asking the questions,” DeWitt said. “Don’t tell the more than they’re ready to hear.”
Our job as parents, she explained, is to protect our children from having to deal with tough issues until they are developmentally ready to do so. You have to know your own children and their maturity levels before you can decide what they’re capable of handling.
Amy Brin,director of Alive Monarchs, the pediatric program of Middle Tennessee’s Alive Hospice, agreed, saying that it’s not realistic to expect a child my son’s age to be able to grasp death on an abstract level. It doesn’t really make sense to bring up death and dying with him unless it’s directly relevant to his life-that is, unless we’ve lost someone who’s significant in his life.
“That’s just not where his mind is right now,” she said.
And what about when someone in your family dies, someone your child knows and loves?
DeWitt recommends starting with some simple questions in that case. Something like, “William, do you know what it means for someone to be dead?” she suggested. “And then listen to what he thinks. Let him say. Then say, ‘we have some sad news to share.’”
Explain that someone close to the family died. Keep it simple. Use simple words, but avoid using any confusing euphemisms. Say “dead” and “died,” not “passed away” or “went to sleep and never woke up.” Explain that it’s part of the natural cycle of life.
Brin gave me a mnemonic to use to remember how to approach it: CHILD. Consider the age and developmental stage, be Honest, be Involved, Listen to your child and respond to the specific questions he is asking and finally, yes, Do it over and over again.
I still remember all the Great Lakes because I memorized HOMES in the fifth grade. I can recite all the planets in the solar system, too, because My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas. A mnemonic is exactly what I need so that I don’t forget what I’ve learned in my crash course on talking about death with my child.
The most important thing to remember is to read the signals that your child gives off and be sensitive to them. You don’t have to be an expert to talk about death with him.
Oh yes, and it will all change as William gets older. So I’ll have to revisit my plan in a couple of years.
“Their minds are always changing and absorbing the world with a different lens,” Brin said.
But at least I have a plan for now. And that’s so much more than I can say that I had two months ago.